In the coming 20-30 years, I suspect we’ll enter a phase of the posthuman transition (what I refer to as “Phase 4“) where brain-machine interface technology (possibly in combination with VR, pharmacology, and nanotech) will facilitate better entertainment, more effective learning, vastly greater work productivity (in any field, from engineering to sales and beyond), and astronomically greater levels of wellbeing than the unaugmented “normal” human condition ever could.

At this point, a large percentage of First World citizens will spend the majority of their time “plugged in” to brain-machine interfaces (BMI), caring little for the physical body outside of the maintenance required to keep the brain healthy enough to engage with the BMI universe.

Defining the Husk

The husk* is a term used to refer to this phase of posthuman transition. In this phase, the body will be little more than a husk, a meat-machine that we need to keep in healthy stasis in order to permit our true selves (our minds, our consciousness) to learn, explore, experience, influence… to live life.

While this idea is probably detestable to most people at the time of this writing (2020), it will become more and more acceptable as:

  • Digital identities (social media, MMORPGs, etc) become indistinguishably “real” as a part of the “selves” of the younger generation of human beings.
  • Immersion in virtual worlds makes “pliability” and personalization a preferred feature for all kinds of experiences, including; workplaces, modes of learning, modes of entertainment (read: Programmatically Generated Everything).
  • The benefits to productivity and wellbeing of various technologies (VR, pharmacology, etc) become patently obvious.
  • (Among other factors…)

Requirements for the Husk

I suspect “the husk” will involve the following:

  • Robust, immersive, lasting, and safe brain-machine interfaces: This is obviously the most important component in bringing the husk idea to life. Virtual reality will never be compelling or useful enough to warrant the near-abandonment of the physical world. The technical challenges of maintaining a safe and secure connection to the human brain may be insurmountable, but I suspect we’ll be able to overcome them, and bring humans to an entirely new level of productive/creative capacity, and baseline wellbeing.
  • Specifically designed seats or pods: People will not be sitting in today’s gamer chairs or La-Z-Boy recliners in the husk phase. Specific devices will be created to hold the body comfortably and safely in a mostly-reclined position. These chairs or pods will have an important set of features:
    • Elimination of waste. Some kind of clean and sanitary way to get rid of bodily fluids. This will involve some direct connection to a sewage system, a process for cleaning the body after waste elimination, and probably a way to wick away perspiration without irritating the skin.
    • Adjusting body posture and prevention of soreness. These seats would adjust, tilt, and change their density in real-time, shifting weight and pressure to ensure for the reduction in soreness and any other negative side-effects of prolonged time in a supine position.
    • Nutrient intake. At some point, brain-machine interface may be able to “pipe in” tastes and sensory experiences astronomically more rich and wonderful than any real-world food ever could. For this reason, intravenous nutrient intake and occasional oral nutrient intake will be streamlined to maintain the healthy stasis of the physical body.
  • A husk-supporting ecosystem: Should the husk scenario arise, an ecosystem of hardware and software business and governing bodies will develop in order to support it. The most important economic and political battle will be for command of the virtual space that “plugged in” humans exist in – a struggle I refer to in my short essay Substrate Monopoly, which is referenced below in the moral considerations section of this article.

I explore the transition into and beyond “the husk” in an interview on Allen Saakyan‘s Simulation Series show:

A Transition Beyond the Husk

The husk would be a remarkably important waypoint in the development of intelligent life on Earth. Namely, the bifurcation between sentient experience and physical reality.

Should we ever arrive in a husk-like phase, however, it would likely be extremely short-lived – like a single touch of a skipping stone on the lake of the intelligence trajectory.

There are a number of ways that the husk scenario could come to an end, including:

  • Brain-in-a-vat. Hyper-productive, cognitively enhanced human scientists develop means of maintaining brain function and conscious immersion without keeping the entire body intact.
  • Uploading. Hyper-productive, cognitively enhanced human scientists develop a way to house (and drastically expand) human consciousness and intelligence in non-biological substrates (read: Sugar Cubes).
  • Machine supremacy. Superintelligent artificial intelligence (and-or the cognitively enhanced human group that controls said superintelligence in the interim) takes control of virtual spaces and computational resources to behoove its own ends or interests.

These scenarios suppose that the husk is a waypoint that is incredibly close to the singularity itself – and I concede wholeheartedly that this is a guess that may not hold up.

Assorted Moral Considerations of the Husk

A quick list of moral issues related to the husk concept, with related links and essays:

  • Whoever owns the substrate that houses the majority of human consciousness, and the most powerful artificial intelligence, functionally rules the world. I suspect that all economic, political, or military conflict between international great powers in the latter half of the 21st century will be about controlling this substrate. Preventing this conflict will prove tremendously challenging. (read: Substrate Monopoly, The Last Words of Alexander)
  • Cognitively enhanced humans are more likely to exist in virtual worlds – rather than sharing a physical world – because I suspect that massively cognitively varied versions of humanity sharing the same physical space would be an immediate recipe for state of nature-like conflict. (read: Cognitive Enhancement Will Yield Conflict)
  • Brain-machine interfaced humans with vastly more creative ability and range of experience will eventually hold more moral value in society than relatively weak unaugmented humans beings. This isn’t something humans will wish for, but I suspect it will be a natural consequence of creating what will be essentially a higher species of more capable and mentally rich beings. (read: Cognitively Enhanced Humans Will Be More Morally Valuable)

 

* Disclaimer 1: I don’t pretend to know the future, and “the husk” is just a theory based on a rough set of hypotheses about the posthuman transition. It is intended as a point of discussion as we design the future of the human experience. That said, I think there is a reasonable likelihood “the husk” will indeed be a stepping stone to whatever is beyond humanity.

* Disclaimer 2: I don’t advocate for the husk scenario specifically, I simply suspect that it is likely to happen if BMI develops to a sufficient level. If anyone reading this essay can think of strong reasons why humanity should develop in a direction that bypasses this scenario, then my essay will have served its purpose.

Header image credit: syfy.com (from The Matrix)