1948 – NEVER
If you grew up in the 80s, you might remember a TV show called Tales from the Darkside. It was little more than a poor man’s Twilight Zone, but occasionally an episode aired that surprised and shocked you.
One such episode was titled “Mookie and Pookie.” I know — terrible names, but it gets better. The episode features two teenage twins, one of whom, Mookie, is dying from a terminal illness. In his few remaining days, he frantically works to complete the instructions for a sophisticated computer program that he makes Pookie promise she will carry out after his death. Once he dies, Pookie keeps her promise and obsessively follows her deceased brother’s instructions, buying exotic computer parts, assembling them, writing code. She does this despite not having a clue what might be the result and despite her parents’ insistence that she’s wasting her time and money on a project conceived of out of desperation. So the day arrives when she finishes the final step, and after she eagerly boots up the mystery machine, she hears the voice of — presto! — her late brother Mookie. He had risen from the dead! Sort of. Buried somewhere in the ones and zeros and computer circuitry is his consciousness, as present and aware as any healthy teenager — sans physical body.
The episode ends not with newly-digitized Mookie taking over the world’s electric and information infrastructure, but on a warm note with the entire family, computer-boy included, playing a round of Scrabble.
As hokey as Mookie and Pookie’s story is, cybernetic immortality might very well become a reality. Dmitry Itskov, a Russian businessman and founder of Initiative 2045, is currently seeking investors to fund research that will lead to eternal life — with a catch. The catch, of course, is that your body does not persist indefinitely; instead, your consciousness — what makes you you — lives on in a cybernetic Matrix-like environment.
But what’s a body other than a sack of meat to encase one’s consciousness?
That’s the official stance, at least, of Initiative 2045, whose main scientific goal is to “create technologies enabling the transfer of an individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality.”
To repeat: a “more advanced non-biological carrier.” The explicit assumption is that what millions of years of biological evolution have granted us is vastly, unfathomably inferior to what a few short decades of computer research can achieve. Which is an amazing testament to human intelligence and ingenuity.
Initiative 2045 sees immortality as entirely plausible, a scientific problem that requires a gradual series of intermediary “trans-humanistic transformations,” starting with the replacement of body parts — limbs as well as organs — with non-biological, cybernetic components… and ultimately ending with the replacement of our meat sacks with ones and zeros.
This step-by-step process is analogous to futurist Ray Kurzweil’s concept of the “bridge to bridge” path to immortality, which is why he allegedly takes between 180 and 210 vitamin and mineral supplements a day: to sustain his carbon-based body long enough to see the day when he no longer needs his carbon-based body. Such a radical change in human existence — when shuffling off our mortal coils results not in our deaths but our cybernetic rebirths — unquestionably qualifies as a Singularity event.
As exciting as this all sounds, what remains to be answered by Dmitry Itskov and others is the existential nature of a life lived in cyberspace. What will people “do” with their time — infinite time for that matter? Will we fall in love, have families, go to work, play Scrabble? Will it be necessary to emulate a “normal” life, complete with the laws of physics and the need to eat and sleep? All we “know” is what we’ve seen in sci-fi classics such as William Gibson’s groundbreaking cyberpunk novel Neuromancer and the films Tron and The Matrix. But of course sci-fi tends to exaggerate the implications of speculative technology. Maybe cyberspace will end up as ho-hum as normal space often is.
Or maybe we’re already living in a computer simulation, as many have earnestly theorized. How would we know? After all, what we think of as “reality” is nothing more than a sophisticated construct our minds have created based on sensory data. Colors, sounds, flavors, pain, euphoria — these are all interpretations of the world beyond our senses. At the rate computer science is accelerating, it’s perfectly plausible to imagine an advanced human culture with the capability and means to replicate the experience of, well, life.
Consequently, if we are indeed living in a future culture’s simulation and, while in that simulation, devise a way to upload our consciousnesses in a separate cyberspace, there’s no end to the levels of Inception-like simulations we’re simultaneously experiencing.
Let’s just hope that at least one of them is more interesting than an afternoon playing Scrabble with our folks.
Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. ~Jean-Jacques Rousseau (The Social Contract)
* * *
From the first day to this, sheer greed was the driving spirit of civilization. ~Friedrich Engels
* * *
Look, a guy who builds a nice chair doesn’t owe money to everyone who ever has built a chair, okay? ~Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) in The Social Network (2010)
* * *
You see, money doesn’t exist in the twenty-fourth century. The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity. ~Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, explaining to a twenty-first-century woman how the “economics of the future” differ from hers
It’s often been said that humans are the only species who pay to live on Earth. Before we emerge from our mothers’ wombs — indeed, even while we patiently gestate inside our mothers’ uteri — we have already assured our parents an often insurmountable heap of expenses and debt for which they are responsible: food and clothes and toys and books and medical attention and hobbies and extracurricular activities and cars and higher education. By the time she turns 17, a child born in 2011 will have cost an average middle-class family $234,900. For no other reason than she came flailing and screaming into the world.
Will our penchant for commodifying every last scrap of our existence still remain strong in the year 2099? For how many more decades will humanity tolerate being enslaved by an imaginary, man-made monetary system that favors the very few, just as feudalism did centuries ago?
European feudalism, of course, lasted only 700 or 800 years before gradually giving way to what we now call capitalism — a term popularized by socialist Karl Marx, of all people. And like feudalism, modern capitalism has its roots in human bondage. Its success as the prevailing social system in the Western world would have been very difficult indeed had it not been for the lucrative human trafficking business. In fact, large American banking corporations such as the Warren Buffet-run Berkshire Hathaway, the now-defunct Lehman Brothers, JPMorgan Chase and Wachovia all came to prominence as a result of their involvement, one way or another, in the African slave trade.
Nearly 150 years after the abolishment of slavery, the business model of commodifying human life still persists. We often talk about how much this celebrity or that politician is worth, as if monetary wealth is a person’s ultimate defining characteristic. We put a price on basic human needs such as food, shelter and health care — a price that’s too frequently beyond the means of many families. Around the world, human trafficking remains a thriving industry. We’ve even gone so far as to grant legal personhood to corporations.
Under the capitalistic model, people are commodities, and commodities are people.
But like feudalism, capitalism will one day buckle under the weight of its many inherent shortcomings. A system that sets arbitrary value on goods, services and people is doomed to fail.
The question is: What will take its place? If capital and the drive to acquire wealth no longer exist in Capt. Picard’s twenty-fourth century, how are goods and services exchanged? What motivates people to go to work and be productive members of society when imaginary Monopoly money is no longer the reward?
As always, the Future Culturalist is mum on details regarding the nature of the economy in the year 2099.
Linux and Wikipedia
For solutions on how to move past a capitalistic social system, we might look at the thriving world of open source software. Millions upon millions of people solely use the free operating system Linux as an alternative to the pricey and, many would argue, inferior Microsoft Windows. People don’t necessarily use Linux because it’s free; they use it because the source code is open to the public, allowing for greater creativity, innovation and collaboration than you can find on the corporate-owned Windows.
Another good example is Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia. There are over 4,100,000 articles in the English-language version alone, all of them maintained and contributed to by “ordinary” users. In the past, Wikipedia has been criticized for allowing baseless or false information to appear on its site, but vigilant contributors tend to correct the work of Wikipedia “vandals” pretty quickly.
That collaborators will never receive any monetary compensation or royalties doesn’t stop them from modifying and improving Linux and Wikipedia. They work, as Capt. Picard says, to better themselves as well as humanity. It’s the take-a-penny-leave-a-penny model of innovation that attracts such people.
Some work to improve open source software. Some simply use it. Those who try to abuse it — and many do — are outed and ultimately disbarred from participating. Everyone benefits.
Andre Charland, an Internet software developer, had this to say after open-sourcing one of his company’s products: “You can’t do it soon enough. You’ll be blown away by how much better your code gets and how much more quickly you can reach a broader audience.”
Case in point: those who use Linux know how much more efficiently it runs than Windows. And because of the success of Wikipedia, when did you last use a paper-bound encyclopedia?
How then can we emulate this model in our general social system? What would an open source economy look like? How would it function?
In Star Trek, people of the future routinely enjoy the convenience of replicators, which are machines that can synthesize pretty much anything you want them to by rearranging subatomic particles into food, water, clothes, toys, spare parts and much more.
How about paper money? A pile of gold Krugerrands? A $1 billion check issued by the IRS?
This is forgery, of course, but no doubt anyone with a replicator would use it as his or her own ATM machine. After all, entertainment and software companies have tried cracking down on pirating and illegal file-sharing, but they still lose billions annually, with the amount likely to rise. The problem will only increase with the availability of 3D printers, which are simply precursors to replicators.
It’s apparent that, were everyday folk permitted to own powerful Star Trek-caliber replicators, it would spell the end of the economy as we know it — or at least of physical currency of any kind. Perhaps this is why the acquisition of wealth is no longer important in Picard’s time. With wealth available to all as plentifully as oxygen, it loses its uniqueness and desirability (and “wealth” here means anything of value, not just currency). Consequently, there would be no reason to work in exchange for wealth.
Think of all the companies and businesses that would instantaneously be rendered obsolete. If you scroll through the Fortune 500 for 2012 — a list of the U.S.’s most profitable companies — you’ll find it populated by corporations whose goods and services many of us can’t easily do without: oil, food, banking, communications, automobiles, retailing. In the top ten alone, we find four oil companies, two automakers, a tech firm, a massive holding company, a mortgage lender and the world’s largest retailer. The #1 company, ExxonMobil, is worth close to half a trillion. The combined revenue of these ten companies amounts to over $2 trillion — greater than the GDP of many small countries and about an eighth of the U.S.’s debt.
What role would these corporations serve in a world in which replicators were as ubiquitous as cell phones?
Because they hold patents on their intellectual property, they would undoubtedly charge you a service fee for replicating them. Interested in putting genuine Exxon fuel in your car (assuming we still use internal combustion engines)? Service fee. Hungry for a McDonald’s Big Mac? Swipe your card here. Got your eye on the latest Apple iDevice? Pay up.
Already, 3D printers are raising sticky copyright issues. But as more and more people own 3D scanners and printers, the problem will become too great for corporations to manage, as we are currently seeing in the entertainment industry. Even if the devices come with preventive measures, hacking will become widespread.
It’s perfectly conceivable, in fact, that once 3D printers are as powerful as the replicators featured in Star Trek, intellectual property will no longer be relevant. Everything will be open source, readily available and, indeed, modifiable to anyone with access to such technology. Because if acquiring wealth is no longer important, what would motivate an individual or corporation to legally protect intellectual property?
Planet Open Source
The most fervent capitalists will inevitably balk at the idea of an entirely open source world. This is just techno-socialism, they might say. If no one owns his or her ideas, competition would cease and innovation would die. Plus, if no one works to acquire wealth and make a living, idleness and crime will prevail. While these are valid arguments, there are a couple of strong counterarguments.
For the majority of human history, we’ve done without copyrighting, trademarking, patenting and other ways of protecting intellectual property. And yet somehow we mustered the drive and curiosity and ingenuity that’s required to make great strides in every area of human knowledge: science, art, literature, music, metallurgy, woodworking, astronomy, agriculture, fashion. Good thing, too: imagine if Gurg had been allowed to take out a patent on his invention, the wheel. It’s absurd to think about.
Secondly, the availability of replicators would not lead to idleness and crime. In fact, it would have the exact opposite effect on society. Crimes of passion such as rape and murder might still exist, but with everyone’s basic needs met and poverty and desperation eliminated, there would be little reason to steal. You could make the case that crimes would still be committed by those with mental disorders, but replicators would give the afflicted free access to the best medications, so long as they were responsible enough to take them regularly or had the help of a family member or social worker.
And as for idleness: free of the stress and inconvenience of having to work for a business or company that means little to you other than a way to pay the bills, people might then have the time and energy to pursue other goals in life. They could “work to better [themselves] and the rest of humanity,” instead of a corporation’s bottom line. Rather than greed and cutthroat competition, the driving forces in society would be self-improvement and collaboration.
Like all the futuristic technology featured in Star Trek — or any sci-fi, for that matter — replicators seem too distant a notion to ever become a reality. But a reality it will one day become: we are already witnessing its inception with the 3D printer. Coupled with the power of open sourcing, universal replication will help usher in a new kind of economy, one that doesn’t favor the few and necessitate the arbitrary commodification of goods, services and human life.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. ~Arthur C. Clarke
Let’s just say God works too slow. ~Magneto (Ian McKellen), in 2000’s X-Men
Once the stuff of folk religion, telepathy and telekinesis have in modern times been featured in the pages of comic books as well as on-screen in sci-fi and fantasy films, TV shows and video games.
Now, however, it seems likely that we’ll soon — i.e., in the next 30 years or so — be able to achieve what Stan Lee and other writers cooked up in X-Men, as demonstrated by superhuman mutant characters such as the telekinetic Jean Grey and the telepathic Charles Xavier.
Todd Coleman, an electrical engineer at the University of California in San Diego, is currently working on a temporary tattoo that would allow the wearer to operate machines with his thoughts or speak telepathically with others, presumably so long as they’re also tatted up with Coleman’s tiny device. Using bendable electrode arrays that easily attach to the skin, these so-small-they’re-almost-invisible tattoos pick up mental signals and convert them into commands.
Coleman and his research team hope to market the technology for use in the surgery room as well as the virtual cockpit, meaning drone pilots will one day be able to level Pakistani villages from the comfort of their living rooms. No word yet on whether we’ll be able to remotely control nine-foot blue aliens.
We already routinely practice magical thinking, of course, though not at the scale promised by Coleman’s tattoo tech. Whenever you willfully raise your arm or take a deep breath, you’re moving an object merely by thinking about it, which is the definition of telekinesis. Your thoughts send electrical signals from your brain to your arms, commanding them to rise, or to your lungs, commanding them to expand and receive air. What prevents you from scooting the chair away from the table without touching it is a simple lack of wiring — physical or otherwise — connecting your mind to said chair.
A lack of wiring is also what prevents those stricken with ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases from retaining control of their bodily movements. Help is allegedly on the way this year, though, in the form of thought-controlled robotic limbs, which will finally give paraplegics, quadriplegics and amputees the much-needed ability to perform simple everyday tasks. Coleman’s research could only increase the likelihood that no one unfortunate enough to contract ALS will be confined to a bed for the rest of his or her life. This application seems much more beneficial to humanity than facilitating drone strikes.
* * *
The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning-bug. ~Mark Twain
Whereas telekinesis has the potential to aid amputees and those with neurodegenerative illnesses as well as assist surgeons and pilots, telepathy has the potential to restructure the dynamics of human relationships at every level — parent-child, wife-husband, teacher-student, employer-employee, doctor-patient, ambassador-ambassador.
In fact, telepathy just might be the cure to war, famine and many other afflictions, human-made or otherwise.
For one thing, telepathy seems to be a more effective and efficient means to communicate with other people than verbal or even written language. Either the essence of what we mean is lost in the words, which, unless you’re a world-class poet, are irrefutably inadequate, or we can’t find the right words (and arrangement of words) to satisfactorily convey our message. In many cases, the wrong words can even confuse what we originally meant. Our thoughts, on the other hand, are pure, unfiltered and contain a much richer vocabulary — not just arbitrary, man-made words but also images, emotions, memories and other abstract, albeit meaningful, bits of data that we can never quite seem to translate into human language.
Consider the implications, both good and bad, of having the ability to speak telepathically with others.
With telepathic abilities, world leaders, ambassadors and Congresspeople could discuss important matters with no filters or blinding rhetoric and possibly find common ground. Assuming the beggar on the street corner has telepathic abilities, he could convey his hunger and desperation to passers-by much more effectively than any cardboard sign. A visit to the shrink would certainly be much more helpful than it is now. Having access to memories, emotions and anything else we often have trouble verbalizing would help the psychologist or psychiatrist determine and treat what’s giving us pain.
Telepathy as it’s described here sounds not unlike the Point of View Gun featured in the 2005 film The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Coincidentally, the gun doesn’t appear in the novel of the same name.
What we fear the most about the idea of telepathy is that we would constantly have “people in our heads,” never giving us a moment’s peace. Or conversely, we’d always be privy to other people’s secrets we’d prefer not to know. Let’s assume for a moment that, were we to have the ability to speak telepathically, it could be shut off like a radio, giving us some level of control. With Facebook, after all, we can pick and choose who gets to see our status updates and whom we want to receive status updates from. Telepathic implants or tattoos might work similarly.
But then, blocking others from gaining entry into our minds would inevitably arouse suspicion.
The X-Men mutants designate themselves as a separate species to differentiate their kind from baseline humans: Homo superior. Able to bend the laws of physics in all imaginable ways, they’ve naturally crossed their own Singularity threshold. But as Arthur C. Clarke’s quote suggests, advanced technology such as we’re likely to witness in the twenty-first century — thanks to the research of Coleman and others — will give us abilities that can only be described as magical.
Novelist H.P. Lovecraft once said that the oldest and strongest human emotion is fear. Which seems pretty accurate. Try to imagine the first generation of Homo sapiens to have developed what we would now recognize as advanced human-level sentience, introspection and awareness of one’s own mortality. With dangerous predators lurking around every corner, the risk of sickness and starvation constantly weighing heavy on one’s mind and absolutely no answers to the simplest of questions, it’s easy to see how the lonely wilderness of the prehistoric world would be an even more terrifying place than we could possibly fathom.
Just as fear once consumed the lives of our cave-dwelling forefathers, fear, it turns out, might someday be the key ingredient if one were interested in genetically engineering the perfect conservative.
According to two independent studies, recently published in The American Journal of Political Science and PLOS ONE, our political leanings have less to do with how we were raised and more to do with how fearful we are. Specifically, people with a wary, watchful disposition tend to be more conservative. During one of the studies, subjects were hooked up to brain scans and asked to participate in high-stakes gambling. The part of the brain that lit up in conservatives’ craniums was the right amygdala, which governs a person’s threat response system. By contrast, liberals more often than not used the insula, which is responsible in part for monitoring social emotions.
But the most stunning part of the study? By merely observing subjects’ brain activity, researchers were able to accurately predict their political preference 82.9% of the time.
Score one for the nature side in the perennial nature vs. nurture debate.
Strictly as a thought experiment, let’s test the accuracy of these studies. What are conservatives afraid of exactly? It’s probably safe to say that, compared to liberals, they tend to be more leery of: immigrants, gays, government takeovers, marijuana, the theory of evolution, women, black people, taxes, Islam, God, no God, socialism, communism, terrorism, science, the liberal arts, the “elite,” the media, subtitles, condoms, university professors, sodomy and ethnic food.
Liberals, on the other hand, are basically fearful of only firearms and climate change. And not getting front-row seats to see Streisand.
In response to these studies and others like it, a conservative might point out — rightfully so — that a strong sense of fear is integral to our survival. The fearful caveman, always on edge, always armed with a sharpened spear or heavy blunt object, no doubt lasted a lot longer in a hostile environment than the less fearful caveman who preferred to practice diplomacy and find common ground with the saber-toothed tiger.
So back to genetic engineering. Already the Chinese are analyzing gene samples obtained from more than 2,200 geniuses who have an IQ over 160, with the understood goal of finding the so-called intelligence gene. If they can single that out, they can determine what makes some people smarter than others and, eventually, replicate such high-functioning intelligence in their nation’s offspring. And once that happens, of course, we might as well rename the Earth China.
Come to think of it, the Future Culturalist refuses to say what the planet’s called in 2099.
In any case, it’s not too far-fetched to predict that the US will eventually single out the fear gene to market to parents who wish to give birth to a conservative son or daughter. (Because, you know, heaven forbid that your children should be allowed to make their own decisions.) Let’s assume for the moment that Republicanism can survive to see the day when fertility clinics start offering genetic engineering services. Modifiable characteristics will likely include hair color, skin pigmentation, height, athleticism and the like. But if clinics were also able to promise parents-to-be a suped-up amygdala and fearful disposition, political affiliation — conservatism, anyway — just might be another customizable attribute.
And forget about any legal or ethical implications of allowing parents to make such important decisions on behalf of their unborn children. If we let deaf parents purposely choose to give birth to a deaf child, surely we’ll let Republicans beget Republicans.
It looks inevitable, then, that once the fear gene hits the fertility market, the US will be overrun by an unstoppable legion of little Limbaughs, Trumps, Coulters and Nugents.
Let’s just hope that Yoda’s wrong about the relationship between fear and the dark side of the Force. Otherwise, we’ll have a much larger problem on our hands than we bargained for.
1948 – NEVER
In his 2005 book The End of Faith, Sam Harris writes the following:
The claims of mystics are neurologically quite astute. No human being has ever experienced an objective world, or even a world at all. You are, at this moment, having a visionary experience. The world that you see and hear is nothing more than a modification of your consciousness, the physical status of which remains a mystery. Your nervous system sections the undifferentiated buzz of the universe into separate channels… [which] are like different spectra of light thrown forth by the prism of the brain. We really are such stuff as dreams are made of.
In other words, everything we think we’re experiencing is nothing more than a simulation, a waking dream, a construct our brains have assembled from only five data streams.
What if, however, we could experience reality objectively, without filters? That is to say, what if we could “see” the world as it must be seen by the Judaic-Christian-Islamic conception of God, who doesn’t have to rely on corporeal eyes, ears, fingers, nose or tongue to gain knowledge of his surroundings? God doesn’t see a sunrise, which is all exterior, all surface. Instead, he sees everything that’s hidden behind the sunrise: the metadata, the coding, the “buzz of the universe.”
Could we humans ever achieve that sublime level of perception? Plenty of recreational drug-users as well as shamans claim to do as much by taking heavy doses of psychotropic hallucinogens or practicing deep meditation. In such a state, the ego melts away and, with it, the senses. The perceiver no longer smells or hears or touches his surroundings, but experiences them. The rise of religions both ancient and modern probably owes much more to shamans’ use of psilocybin mushrooms than the common churchgoing crowd would care to admit.
Is there a more efficient way to experience the buzz?
Perhaps there’s no need for us to. Perhaps we wouldn’t know what to do with so much data, pelting our minds like a never-ending hailstorm. After all, our bodies have evolved over the millennia to exclude all but five data streams. Like an old piece of hardware, we’re plugged in to reality using only these five ports. This simplifies what we can and cannot perceive. Perhaps this simplification once aided our progression as a species. Had we always been able to take in everything, maybe we wouldn’t have given enough attention to essential right-here-right-now tasks like locating a water source or building a fire. Instead, we would have found greater meaning in lying on our hairy backs, marveling (or stymied) by the limitless cosmos chattering all around us.
And that’s about as far as we would have gotten as a species.
But certainly by now we’ve located enough water sources and built enough fires to sustain us while we subject ourselves to the buzzing of the universe. Could we somehow artificially, cybernetically unite these “separate channels,” as Harris calls them, into one — like some top-of-the-line HDMI cable? Many synesthetes, after all, can “taste” colors and “see” music, so we already have the (rarely) natural ability to hotwire our brains’ interpretation of sensory data.
A better question might be: could we somehow artificially remove these channels altogether? It seems as if this would be the only way to truly experience an “objective world.”
For a little fun, check out this aggressively psychedelic video simulating what it’s like to experience the world with synesthesia.
The Future Culturalist couldn’t help but chuckle when he saw the first promotional photos of everyday folk rocking Google Glass, which you’ll be able to purchase sometime this year so long as you can cobble together $1,500. Besides the fact that the device is even less fashionable than a Bluetooth headset — it makes the wearer unflatteringly resemble both Geordie La Forge and a member of the Borg Collective — Google Glass is outdated before it even hits store shelves.
The reason why it’s already outdated has nothing to do with what Google Glass is capable of. No doubt it allows you to perform any number of nifty tasks such as handlessly checking your email, Facebook News Feed and stocks; watching Game of Thrones while pretending to pay attention to your girlfriend; and recording every second of your dismally boring life.
Simply put, Google Glass is painfully outdated because in the year 2099, we won’t wear technology — we will be technology.
Very soon, within the next half-century, it will be rare for a middle- to upper-class human in Western society not to have some sort of cybernetic, prosthetic or other type of technological augmentation. Self-replicating nanobots will swim through our bloodstreams like so many microscopic tadpoles, optimizing our oxygen transfer rate and unclogging blocked arteries. Memory chips will boost our brainpower. Chemical dispensers might regulate our dopamine and serotonin levels, thereby eliminating or at least lessening the effects of anxiety and depression.
All of these augmentations, furthermore, will be able to communicate with each other, the Internet (or some future iteration of the Internet) and you. Your entire body will be humming with wi-fi signals. If a group of nanobots detects a cancerous cell, you’ll instantaneously be informed via cybernetic implants (telepathically, almost), similar to how your virus detection software informs you when it intercepts a malicious program. If a memory chip goes down, you’ll feel it as palpably as you feel hunger or a change in your mood.
Best of all, with retinal implants we’ll be able to accomplish much more than what Google Glass offers, without having to look as if we walked off the set of a low-budget sci-fi movie.
After so many years of wearing the hideous VISOR, Geordi La Forge was finally able to get his own retinal implants in Star Trek: First Contact. At the rate technology really improves, we need not wait as long as he did.
Below you can check out a promotional video for Google Glass.
Anyone who’s seen the inside of a data storage room knows that they’re big, noisy and hot. You would also be right to assume that they’re expensive to manage.
But with information, from the priceless to the petty, piling up faster than we know what to do with, data storage is increasingly becoming a headache for businesses, governments, organizations and families. If only there were a better, more efficient way to compress and then store all of our treasured human artifacts such as VCR user manuals, YouTube cat videos and overzealous reader comments on sci-fi blogs.
Fortunately, scientists in the UK might have cracked the case. According to researchers in the latest edition of the journal Nature, huge amounts of data can be stored on a “device” that’s been with us since, well, the beginning: our DNA. Specifically, they managed to successfully encode then extract 739 kilobytes worth of information, including a photo, Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech — all in synthetic DNA molecules. Although 739 kilobytes isn’t particularly impressive, the method of writing such data into our genetic code is without a doubt life-changing. After all, the entirety of human knowledge — books, journals, films, recordings, paintings, photos — has been calculated at 295 exabytes, which is equivalent to 1.2 billion average hard drives. Eventually this amount will surpass what we’re capable of hanging onto.
But what if every last byte could be safely stored not in auditorium-size banks of lifeless computers and servers, which demand constant care and capital, but in the confines of human (or even non-human) DNA?
What if every last newborn carried in her genetic recipe a thorough and accurate account of her species?
The famous Golden Record, which accompanies the Voyager II’s 35-year-old, Solar System-defying mission, contains data documenting human life in the event it is ever picked up by intelligent alien life. It serves as a sort of welcome pamphlet to humanity. Earth’s ambassadors to our intergalactic brethren include photographs of men and women, the Taj Mahal and the Golden Gate Bridge as well as recordings of greetings in different language, children speaking and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”
Now, however, our bodies themselves can potentially tell the rich story of humanity, similar to how minstrels and poets in ancient societies were once charged with carrying and passing on the stories of their peoples’ great heroes and challenges and triumphs. But unlike the Golden Record or even our (very fallible) memories, DNA can accurately compress and store information for as long as it remains intact — which, as anyone who has seen Jurassic Park knows, could be hundreds of thousands (millions?) of years. Mammoth DNA, in fact, is housed in labs around the world despite mammoths’ extinction many millennia ago.
The implications of DNA data storage contribute to the prevailing idea that, sometime this century, the line separating humans and machines will blur and ultimately disappear. What could possibly make us more machine than becoming walking, talking glorified hard drives?
Before we get too excited, however, it’s important to note that optimizing our DNA for data storage is extremely cost-prohibitive — researchers estimate you would spend $12,400 per megabyte. But like any new technology, prices will eventually drop.
For decades we’ve seen all different kinds of data storage devices. The Selectron tube. Punch cards. Punched tape. Magnetic drums. The hard disk drive. The Laserdisc. The floppy disc. Magnetic tape. Could DNA soon be included on the list?
According to the MIT Technology Review, futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil’s new job at Google entails designing and building a type of artificial intelligence that will serve as a super-sophisticated personal assistant — or what will eventually become humanity’s godlike overlord.
The details of the new AI system are frustratingly scarce. Presumably it will gather and analyze all available information in Google’s databases (in other words, the entirety of human knowledge) and even listen in on phone conversations and read emails.
No, we’re not making this up.
As fascinating as this ambitious project sounds, we can’t help but wonder if Kurzweil has ever seen 2001: A Space Odyssey or the Terminator series.
Both 2001 and Terminator resonate as cautionary tales of the dangers of unrestrained, sentient artificial intelligence. The two narratives tap into humanity’s unconscious and ancient apprehension of technology we don’t fully comprehend, a theme that can be traced at least as far back as the Jewish folktale of the Golem.
Of course, there are a few popular stories that convey the opposite theme, that artificial intelligence will be humanity’s salvation. A classic example is the Isaac Asimov short story “The Last Question,” which Asimov felt was his best work. (Seriously, if you haven’t already read it, do so now. We’ll wait.)
At this point, what Google and Kurzweil are up to is a bit unclear. Don’t most of us already have access to the full extent of human knowledge crammed in our pockets? Whether their adventures in AI will give us smartphones on steroids or spell the end of humanity, we’ll continue to feature more news along the way.
That’s the question the Future Culturalist is asking.
So what if he used performance-enhancing drugs and underwent blood transfusions to boost his strength and endurance?
It worked, didn’t it?
Seven times it worked.
The only thing Armstrong should be guilty of is continually denying his involvement in the doping program. He should feel no shame in reaching and, indeed, surpassing the absolute pinnacle of human athleticism. Few people in the history of the world have shared the view he commands from that lofty height. And how did he get there?
EPO. Cortisone. Testosterone. Steroids.
And an awful lot of hard work.
As a result, he — as well as fellow dopers Barry Bonds, Roger Clemons, et al. — can rightfully join the ranks of great men of sports, such as this guy:
The Future Culturalist knows what you’re thinking. “But the dude cheated,” you insist. “He lied. Repeatedly.”
All true claims. The Future Culturalist can’t argue there.
But here’s a question for you: Why is performance-enhancement frowned upon as a matter of course only in the world of sports, whereas in all over professions and industries, people can dabble with performance-enhancing drugs with relative impunity (except where the law is concerned, of course)? Should it change our opinion of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s startlingly imaginative (and, some might say, ultimately meaningless) Romantic-era poem “Kubla Khan” once we acknowledge that he composed it in a white heat after waking from an opium-induced dream? Should the poem be “disqualified” from the Norton anthology of Western literature because its creator had an unfair advantage over poets who chose not to take opium?
What about Papa Hemingway, who prided himself on “doping”? One of his most famous quotes is “Write drunk, edit sober.” At least his buddy Fitzgerald had the decency to write his novels clean (allegedly). Is The Great Gatbsy, therefore, a “purer” novel than For Whom the Bell Tolls, more demonstrable of unadulterated creativeness the most naturally talented humans can muster?
How about the Beatles, the Doors, Pink Floyd, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix? Should their music be accompanied by an asterisk warning listeners that they were “cheating” (using cannabis and other mind-altering drugs)?
You get the point. The analogy, though imperfect, isn’t quite as apples-and-oranges as you might initially think. The biggest difference is that professional athletes have a contractual agreement not to dope (and, if caught, their past victories are routinely stripped from their records), whereas professional writers, artists, actors and musicians have only the law to fear. Otherwise, the elements of competition and “fairness” still apply in the performing and fine arts. Don’t they?
So what does all of this have to do with speculation of life and culture in the future?
In brief, attitudes toward doping, especially among young people, are already shifting from intolerance to leniency. This trend will likely continue and might even reach the threshold where doping is necessary if professional athletes reasonably expect to compete with other “augmented” athletes.
We’ve already discussed how, in the next half-century or so, computer implants in the brain will become widespread, vastly enhancing our processing power, calculation speed, prediction-making and the like. Can you imagine how exciting a football game would be if all players not only doped but were also enhanced with computer implants, granting them lightning-fast reflexes?
The Future Culturalist assures his readers that such games will be slightly more exhilarating than the classic robot football arcade game Cyberball 2072.
Inevitably there will come a time when all professional sports leagues and groups and organizations must ask themselves whether they will continue to “fight the good fight” and disallow doping and other forms of augmentation… or concede that humans, when given the liberty to pursue performance-enhancement by whatever means, can do some pretty incredible feats once considered superhuman. Like winning the Tour de France. Seven times. After surviving testicular cancer. If sports commissioners choose to go with option two, they most likely will move to establish two separate leagues within each sport — one for dopers and one for non-dopers — both with their own unique codes of conduct.
It’s hard to imagine a 2099 in which spectators’ attentions are still being captured by non-augmented, “normal” humans — exceptionally athletic though they are — performing at pretty much the same caliber of skill humans have today. No doubt “classic” sports will survive as a niche market for the sentimentalists and nostalgists, but by and large, sports played by augmented men and women will become the norm.