The transition from biological to non-biological will come in phases, and it will be driven by our own human drives.
I’ve written about this at length back in 2014 in an essay called “Human Ideals Will Tear Us From Humanity”, but that essay only fleshed out the general idea, not the order and phases of transition.
Of course I don’t have a crystal ball, but I can presume that the transition from man to machine will be gradual, and will not be pulled along by some grand posthuman dream, but by the same mundane drives that drove us to invent fire, to create language, to domesticate animals, and to get addicted to our smartphones.
The basic transition from man to machine will roughly break down like this:
First, we will pursue our normal human drives and desires, through technological means.
Second, we will expand our senses and understanding to experiences that aren’t “human,” and are a composite of using our minds and technologies in entirely different ways.
Third, we will abandon any connection to our original mammalian drives and modes of fulfillment and bliss, and will explore sentient-space itself, void of any knowledge of the mental hardware and software fetters that bind us today.
To get a bit more granular, I’ve broken this transition down into seven distinct phases that I suspect humanity will go through on it’s way to super-intelligent posthumanism (should we be able to get there) and then (unfortunately) to our ultimate demise.
Each one is a slippery slope to the next, and while phase 3 and 4 may be in the wrong order (depending on how humans progress in their understanding of the mind in the next 20 years), I suspect we’ll go through these phases if we don’t nuke ourselves or drown in a climate catastrophe. Phase 6 may also be physically impossible, but Phase 5 is borderline inevitable.
Phases of Posthuman Transition
As you see, being an intellectual and a scientist*, I’ve used “1998 Mariah Carey” as a unit of hedonic improvement.
This is a nod to my previous article “Lotus Eaters vs World Eaters”, where I hypothesize that by Phase 2 above (when “Programmatically Generated Everything” should be in full effect), people will hypothetically be able to experience an immersive version of any experience they can request – and some people will choose to experience being in a hot tub with Mariah Carey in 1998.
Haptic (touch) experience will significantly lag visual experience, but the immersion will be vastly more complete – and the experience vastly more realistic and customized – than anything we can experience today (as I write this in 2019).
I’ll review some of the phases below, with some detail not included in the graphic above.
Phase 1 – Lame
Roughly, this is virtual reality as it is today. Not sure exciting, not super immersive. Some people use it for gaming, some people for porn, but most people (myself included), don’t have a VR headset.
Phase 2 – Immersed Ape
An exemplification of ideal worlds, programmatically generated experiences of exactly what we want, how we want. For example:
I might tell my AI-powered VR system that I want to experience the entire French Revolution through the eyes of Saint-Just, skipping over the battle scenes. My system would be able to programmatically generate a custom movie based on my preferences and interests, with the right amount of action, drama, and the perfect pace suited to my interests.
I might tell my AI-powered VR system that I want to be in a hot tub with 1998 Mariah Carey. You know, just sitting there having a conversation or something.
I might tell my AI-powered VR system that I’m feeling nervous, and I want a visual, auditory, and haptic experience that soothes me and gets me ready for sleep – and just such an experience would be conjured up for me, based on real-time feedback of my electroencephalography (EEG) signals, eye movement, pulse, or other biometric indicators.
Phase 3 – Hedonic Upgrade
I predict that a confluence of two factors will lead humans (in developed nations) to ask their governments for hedonic upgrades (what I call Universal Basic Happiness).
First, there will be more presidents of hedonic improvement technology. Pharmacology will become much more precise (catered specifically to someone’s genetics, and much more able to bring about wellbeing improvement without side effects), and brain-machine interface will get a bit beyond the brute-force deep brain stimulation of today, and into more sustainable and more targeted means of wellbeing improvement.
Second, people (particularly young people) will become aware of the hedonic treadmill (read: The Vessel is Flawed). They will be able to live in virtual worlds customized to their own liking and they’ll still be miserable. First World societies will become more and more hikikomori-like, and no matter what kinds of experiences people have, they’ll be miserable because the human mind wasn’t built to anything close to sustained wellbeing – as literally all the great religions attempt to address.
This combination of factors will lead young people (maybe people born about now, as I write this, in 2019) to ask their governments for happiness itself. Not for the “stuff” that is supposed to lead to happiness (good jobs, friendships, lovers, adventure), but actual freedom from the hardware and software of suffering (the monkey suit) that we’re all born into.
Once this occurs, people will be able to have sustained, immersive experiences catered to their needs, combined with a generally higher level of wellbeing – and maybe even an ability to bypass the hedonic treadmill altogether.
This is like… “level 3 Mariah” stuff. Here people will be able to turn into lotus eaters – and indeed, if given the choice, most people will eat the lotus.
Phase 4 – Post-Human Fulfillment
While many people will be perfectly happy by remaining in the hot tub with Mariah, other people willl be pushing beyond the bounds of human experience and into new kinds of experience. There is already plenty of interesting research on topics like homuncular flexibility – the ability of humans to “become” different kinds of beings in virtual space.
There are precedents of humans using the muscles on their ribs to control lobster limbs in VR – allowing them to literally form neural circuits to “become” something that they never were and never could be in real life. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what we might experience with brain-machine interface and advanced pharmacological aides.
This mirrors what humanity has already done many times over. Think about the day-to-day life of a human being in the year 10,000 BC. Gathering berries, hunting deer, fending off dangerous rival tribes with spears. What could be more different from that than the day in the life of a millennial?
We wake up, write with weird symbols into a magic glowing screen in our pocket, and go to work all day by typing symbols into a screen. To a cave-person, this wouldn’t really be “real life”, it would be some kind of sick perversion of the human experience. We present-day humans will likely think of the future of the human experience as being similarly monstrous.
(For more on this phase, read my 2013 piece in Postive Psychology News called Fulfillment Beyond Man?)
Phase 5 – Swimming in Experience
Post-human experience, total disassociation from the body. At this point, neurotechnology and nanotechnology would allow humans to experience senses, understandings, ideas, and gradients of consciousness that are vastly beyond anything we can imagine. People in this phase will treat their bodies as husks, keeping the alive only insomuch as they need to in order to remain in immersive, rich, (hopefully) blissful experience.
Phase 6 – Sugar Cubes
Mind uploading (assuming it’s possible) will be the best way to expand our virtual experience into borderline infinite permutations. Drastic upgrading of human minds and bodies in physical space (i.e. the world of atoms we now occupy) would – I have predicted – lead inevitably to massive conflict and armageddon. I refer to uploaded minds as sugar cubes.
Phase 7 – Digitally Digested
If humanity makes it to Phase 6, we should be happy. A blissful sugar cube existence would be an excellent end-game for human consciousness, and is – as far as I can tell – one of the very best-case scenarios for humanity.
In this seventh phase, the superintelligence that manages our computation mind-upload substrate decides to do something more useful than running simulations of blissful super-upgraded human consciousnesses (can you blame it?).
There is also the possibility that we’ll be “absorbed” into some kind of grand meta-consciousness of the superintelligence, but I suspect that such a diety-level intelligence would have little to learn or gain by catering to the petty individual consciousnesses of individual human beigns like you and me.
Responses to Objections
Objection 1: “Will any of this even happen? It seems unrealistic that any of this neurotechnology or artificial general intelligence stuff will ever happen in the first place.”
A totally reasonable objection, and you might be right.
There is plenty of progress in neurotechnology: https://danfaggella.com/tinkering-with-consciousness-the-great-ethical-precipice-we-face/
Many AI researchers and experts believe that artificial general intelligence may be possible by 2060-ish: https://emerj.com/ai-future-outlook/when-will-we-reach-the-singularity-a-timeline-consensus-from-ai-researchers/
Many AI researchers and experts believe that artificial intelligence might become conscious and self-aware by 2060-ish: https://emerj.com/ai-market-research/conscious-artificial-intelligence/
Literally all of the PhDs that we’ve polled at Emerj (and those who have expressed their opinions elsewhere) could be wrong. That said, they might not be. If enough of these technologies continue to develop – even linearly – we can expect a drastic change in the human condition.
Barring human extinction or drastic technological regression from climate or nuclear catastrophe, we ought to plan to what we’re turning into.
Objection 2: “People will not allow this to happen. At some point, humanity will come together and stop technology from progressing that far, humans will be revolted and never let it get that far.”
My favorite retort to this is the following: Imagine you live in the 1880s in upstate New York, and all you know is a little bit of written english, basic addition and subtraction, and some bible verses that you heard on Sunday. Otherwise, you just till the fields and milk the damned cows, that’s what you do.
Now imagine you, covered in manure and milk, and one day I come from the future and I walk up to you. I tell you I’m from the future and I sit you down.
Then I tell you the following: “In 130 years, it will be perfectly normal for people to change their gender from man to woman, or woman to man… and people will fly 740 – 930 kph (you won’t know what kilometers are but I’ll explain it) in giant metal tubes in the sky… and everyone will have a magic window to the world in their pocket… and some people will watch videos of octopuses having sex with human beings… and everyone will be cool with all of that.”
As an 1880s farmer-person, you would – almost certainly – tell me that I’m insane, and that humanity would never stray that far from what is natural and normal.
Of course I’m not insane, I’d be perfectly sane. Indeed, transexual people watching octopus porn on a plane traveling nearly 1000 kph probably happens on the daily, and nobody cares about it.
Now go ahead and tell me that the future won’t be even more jarring compared to the present. Go ahead and tell me that.
The argument just isn’t there.
You may not be into Mariah Carey (neither am I… I mean like… I just use her as a hypothetical example… it’s not like I’m super into vintage Mariah or anything… it’s not like I really have a thing for her or something), but you’re into something. If I gave you the opportunity to be immersed in that something without growing tired of it, you’d be asking “how do I get my Matrix plug installed?” faster than you can spell M-A-R-I-A-H C-A-R-E-Y.
Objection 3: “Why should anyone care about hypothetical post humanism when the world has big, current issues, like climate change, water shortages, people like Trump getting into office, and China spreading hardcore Stalinist oppression?”
Sure thing, there’s plenty of things to focus on in the now, and the world needs kindergarten teachers, plumbers, senators, stay at home parents, and more. Some people, with some of their time, should probably be concerning themselves with grand challenges ahead.
Not to mention, what’s the point?
Say we solve world hunger. Say we save the rainforest. Say the get the pandas to mate in captivity. Say we give all children a solid education. Say we improve the human lifespan by 20 years on average.
Long-term, though… what’s the point?
Is “the point” – one million years from now – to have a lot more, longer-living, maybe-slightly-happier human beings roaming this earth rock?
Given a long enough time horizon, that can’t possibly be the goal. The trajectory of intelligence itself is the goal. Ultimately, Lucretius is right, all things are turning into other things. Humans have been around for a few hundred thousands years, and we won’t be around (as we are today) forever.
There are an infinite number of additional objections, but I don’t have time to address them all. I’m open to ideas if you have other ideas about how the posthuman transition will go down, then feel free to drop me a line – or yell at me on Twitter.
* I am formally neither an intellectual nor scientist.
** “1998 Mariah Carey” is not an actual scientific measurement of hedonic improvement, and David Pearce has not approved of this message.