Human nature has always been to gain control over the physical world — both in maximizing its output for our benefit (farming, mining, etc), and in lessening the risks it poses to human life and wellbeing (medicine, construction, etc). This same drive for control compels us to manipulate the virtual world, with the emergence of a triad of technologies that have the potential to profoundly transform the human experience into something unimaginably different from what it is today.
In this article I’ll outline three “phases” of technology adoption that might lead to an inevitable transhuman transition, taking us further away from the age-old human experience and into a much more abstract and hyper-optimized way of “being” that becomes as “real” as our daily experience is today:
- Phase 1: Virtual reality (VR)
- Phase 2: Virtual reality optimized and customized with artificial intelligence (VR + AI)
- Phase 3: Virtual reality optimized and customized with artificial intelligence, combined with a direct neural interface between our brains and computers (VR + AI + BMI)
“Phase 4” would imply full-blown posthumanism. This would be an era dominated by non-biological sentient, intelligent entities. These entities will not be extrapolations of a human brain, but will be an entirely digital substrate. This essay will only be covering the “transhuman transition” from Phases 1, 2 and 3.
I use these terms loosely, but have come up with rough definitions for each. For our purposes, each is defined below (with an acknowledgement that in many cases there is overlap):
- Pleasure: Driven to technology adoption by the fulfillment of desire. Characterized by leaving the struggle for survival, and fulfilling needs for the sake of positive qualia alone. Actions and behaviors include:
- Emotional / sensory experiences of pleasure,
- Continuous exploration of our own interests and enjoyments
- Fulfilment of our urge for curiosity and adventure
- Pragmatism: Driven to technology adoption by the desire to keep up with others in work and life, to maintain status quo in a fast-evolving world. Pragmatism often overlaps with pleasure or profit, but is characterized by neither. Actions and behaviors include:
- Desire or need to overcome a fear, such as speaking in front of a crowd
- Desire or need to learning something new, like programming or a new language
- Need to accomplish a work task that contributes to a higher goal, such as hiring 30 salespeople within a month in order to grow a company’s product and profit
- Power: Driven to technology adoption by the desire for control and power. Characterized by hyper-engagement in the struggle for survival and a desire to optimize environments for personal, business, and/or community benefit. Actions and behaviors include:
- Need or desire for maximum work output and optimization of focused attention
- Need or desire to multitask at a superhuman level and get more done in less time,
- Escaping the burden of human needs and weaknesses that don’t contribute to productive output
Roughly, I’m arguing that almost everyone in the developed world will adopt VR, AI, and BMI as they become available because of a combination of the following motives:
- They wish to obtain a more sustained pleasure and fulfillment than the human condition currently permits (Pleasure)
- They wish to simply keep up with changing times, staying in touch with loved ones, keeping a job, staying current (Pragmatism)
- They wish to obtain dominance and distinction, or they wish to obtain safety obtaining a position of power or control (Power)
I don’t suspect that all possible motives for technology fit into one of these three umbrellas (though I do argue that many of them do). I also don’t attempt to paint a clear vision of the transhuman or posthuman future (an impossible task).
Rather, I set out in this essay to explore some of the motives that I believe to be most important in pulling humans (willingly, or kicking and screaming) into a posthuman condition – and I set out to explore how such a transition might come about.
I am neither calling these technologies “bad” or “good”, and I am neither calling these motives “bad” or “good” – I’m merely presenting them for critique and consideration as we move forward (hopefully peacefully) as a species.
In the following sections, I’ll explore how all three motives (Pleasure, Pragmatism, Power) might express themselves through the three “phases” of transition (VR, VR+AI, VR+AI+BMI). I’ll end this essay with an assessment of what we should do about these technologies moving forward, and how the transhuman transition might be managed.
Pleasure (“The Lotus Eaters”)
“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” – Aristotle
I posit that a large segment of humanity will adopt transhuman technologies in order to escape from pain, and experience more pleasure.
I argue that this is an attempt (maybe one that can be successful, who knows), to escape the intense Darwinian competition and combat inherent in being alive by leaving it behind.
People with this motive might be referred to as “lotus eaters”, after the blissful and lethargic people in Homer’s Odyssey – who live off of narcotic lotuses on a secluded island.
Here’s how such a motive might play it’s way out across the adoption if technology in the three phases:
Pleasure, Phase 1: Virtual Reality
Though VR has progressed at a slower rate than many enthusiasts might have hoped, advances in the technology have in large measure been driven by the desire for “pleasure”. In the past couple of years, stand-alone and mobile VR headsets from companies like Intel, Qualcomm, and HTC Vive, have been paired with newer haptic accessories like gloves, vests, sense emitters, and brainwave readers, which hasten a more immersive and believable experience (though haptic technology is far from “realistic” today).
Web VR and AR frameworks like A-Frame and Amazon’s Sumerian give anyone with the software the ability to create detailed immersive experiences.
Outside of gaming, VR is still being adopted more by “innovators” rather than “early adopters”. Innovators, according to Everett M. Rogers’ social system for adopters, come before early adopters; they’re the risk takers and the first to try out a new product. Early adopters, conversely, tend to have the most influence on a given technology and are better informed and more highly educated.
A 2014 study by Pew Research appears to have lumped together these two groups — innovators and early adopters — in a survey in which 28% of Americans identify as “strong” early adopters of new technologies. That’s almost a third of the population.
Who are these innovators and early adopters? The somewhat awkward headsets and lack of real mobility may in part have been a more natural transition for hardcore gamers than the rest of the population; one might also argue that this group of innovators are also to some extent more given to escapism of daily realities and seeking some form of pleasure.
A virtual space provides a more controlled and “safe” environment for physical and mental stimulation (although reports of the first death of a VR gamer who died after falling into a glass table in his apartment while wearing a VR headset prove work remains to be done in ensuring safe and optimal use), while also opening imaginative worlds and immediate opportunities to explore.
In attracting pleasure-bound users, VR may hold a similar “addictive” draw as games like World of WarCraft (WoW). Some would say addictive is too harsh a word, but semantics aside — if you create an experience desirable enough, individuals will return again and again. It’s a fact that online support groups have been created for those seeking to disengage from the constant draw of WoW.
What factors made WoW so appealing to diehard fans? The list provided below is based on exchanges from an active Quora discussion:
- Reduced barriers to entry — built-in tutorial into game and easy player assimilation
- Imaginative worlds and experiences
- Reiterations on existing worlds/experiences
- Continual work towards a goal
- Ability to be a “different person” or to try out multiple roles
- Opportunities to improve and watch a character “grow in power”, while at the same tie almost impossible to beat the game
- Start the game poor with the ability to end up “rich”
- Social competition and tournaments
- In-game social factor and team affect
- Popularity gained from becoming a good player and gaining followers
- (A more troubling response) — revenge in tracking down an “enemy”
It seems more than probable that all of the above could as easily be attributed to present and near-future VR experiences.
In addition, the current traction of VR porn is yet another compelling example of pleasure-seeking appeal that this technology already holds for early adopters. VR offers the ability to experience a similar or enhanced environment conducive to sex, but in a private, anonymous way.
VR users looking to satisfy their sexual urges don’t have to deal with the sometimes embarrassing sights, sounds, and smells that accompany sex, not to mention the complex feelings that can be associated with human intimacy. For some, VR is a clear answer to this primal urge – and it will only become more realistic and immersive month by month.
And the ability to escape the world of human intimacy via VR simulations may prove to be more attractive to certain cultures and age ranges than others, at least initially. Take a population like Japanese millenials, who are having far less sex than previous generations.
The Japanese press has an actual name for this phenomenon: sekkusu shinai shokogun, meaning celibacy syndrome. For millenials who are either too busy, too disinterested, or simply lack any experience with sex, such a population may find the ability to explore or fulfill their sexual needs through a VR environment an optimal solution.
^ Sexless in Japan
The Japanese have a term for men who don’t leave their rooms and derive all of their satisfaction from pornography and video games: Hikikomori.
Nearly a million men in Japan have locked themselves in their room to avoid the real world altogether. Full stop.
The trend is part of a panoply of factors leading to a tragically low birth rate in Japan, and an unusually low interest in sex or intimate relationships among young people. Population going way down in the next 50 years.
To be frank, I see Japanese as the “canary in the coal mine” for the First World (but that’s an essay in and of itself). At my most pessimistic, I look at Japan as a nation that has seen the pinnacle of productivity and wealth, yet still finds so little fulfillment in life and other human beings that they escape to their devices, and to virtual worlds. An attempt to escape the hurly-burly Darwinian struggle of life.
Pleasure, Phase 2: Virtual Reality (and Haptics) + Artificial Intelligence
VR + Haptics — programmatically-generated VR plus an advanced haptic suit — expands the range of sensory experiences. Existing haptic suit models like Hardlight VR suit or the Teslasuit (not related to Tesla Motors) are still in development, but can be pre-ordered today. The promise of sensing freezing cold temperatures or experiencing the impact of a bullet in a virtual world is for some an attractive novelty that enhances the boundless virtual worlds that are poised to multiply over the next decade.
In terms of pleasure, these haptic suits will likely provide an immersive form of VR sex. But beyond sex, VR plus haptics may also expand to other kinds of experiences in love — including conversations and excursions with friends and family across the globe.
Artificial intelligence might “one-up” this experience, however. Maybe even better than visiting your real friends in VR would be the creation of entirely new VR “personalities” (friends, teachers, lovers, etc) who would be tailored in their appearance and actions to the exact preferences of the user.
A user who wants to learn history might learn from a programmatically generated version of George Washington, and a user who wants to be in a hot tub to… ahem… have a conversation… with Mariah Carey circa 1998 could do just that.*
It would be a shame if pornography (or it’s futuristic equivolent) plays an important role in the transhuman transition, but – as with the adoption of other technologies – it’s likely that this will be the case.
A third pleasure-rooted drive for VR and AI may a technology that can volitionally calibrate a user’s emotional experience.
For example, say a person wants to be less anxious or more confident. A more evolved form of this paired technology may allow individuals to enter a system that knows an individual’s unique emotional patterns and can bring them into a desired emotional space. This might be achieved through a combination of physical simulations and mental prompts, allowing people more volitional control over emotions and hence behaviors.
Think about it – if you could enter a VR space where your brain activity and pulse and other factors could be “understood” by a machine – it’s possible that the machine would know what images, statements, sounds, and experiences might bring you to a different emotional state – the state which you desire.
Maybe going from anxious to calm. Maybe going from lethargic to energized – or from timid to determined. What human beings ultimately want is a change in their experience, and AI plus VR might be a combination to deliver on that goal like never before.
Pleasure, Phase 3: Virtual Reality + Artificial Intelligence + Brain Machine Interface
BMI may one day be able to stimulate on command a specific feeling, or even expand beyond current human experiences and senses to new realms of pleasurable sensations. BMI may also have the potential to level up VR and create even more immersive, “rich” environments that expand the human experience.
These could be totally pleasure-oriented and addictive, like a super-experience of unlimited sex or chocolate, or they could be rich and nuanced pleasure experiences, like writing a sonnet or creating an oil painting. In other words both “high” and “low” pleasures could be experienced at new and transcendently lofty levels. Unlike current pleasures, these might be able to be continuous and ongoing, rather than scattered between a mostly anxious and discontent experiences (i.e. that of many people in the first world).
And unlike VR alone, advanced BMI could yield immersive worlds and experiences that are as “real” to us as our present physical world. An augmentation of the brain’s hardware and software could even yield a physical form that takes us beyond current human machine; we may one day be able to bypass mental and emotional dips like depressing and post-traumatic stress disorder, or surpass the need to sleep, resulting in a “God-like escapism” into unimaginable and continuous gradients of bliss.
“[Pragmatism’s] only test of probable truth is what works best in the way of leading us, what fits every part of life best and combines with the collectivity of experience’s demands, nothing being omitted.” – William James
I posit that a large segment of humanity will adopt transhuman technologies in order to simply “keep up” with changing times and demands, in the same way that most people in 2018 have adopted smartphones, home wifi, and the use of Facebook.
Here’s how such a motive might play it’s way out across the adoption if technology in the three phases:
Pragmatism, Phase 1: Virtual Reality
VR is already being used as a pragmatic tool for helping individuals achieve goals or learn something new. For example, a safe and simulated environment may be the ideal place for an individual to overcome their fear of public speaking by practicing in front of a virtual audience, or learning a new language with a virtual avatar teacher.
Almost half of the early adopters of VR and augmented reality (AR) technology, in a study by Ericsson ConsumerLab (VR/AR), believe physical classrooms and offices will be replaced by virtual spaces. While gaming leads the way in VR adoption, education and training are exciting practical applications in the near future.
In healthcare, VR technology is already being used for teaching and patient care in profoundly new ways, from the ability to stream tedious surgical operations to medical students globally to tackling more insidious mental health disorders, such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Another pragmatic use of VR could soon be long-distance social interactions and relationships, both personal and business. As the technology advances and provides a more accessible, shared user experience, individuals may opt to have a conversation with a long-distance friend or relative in an ideal location or setting, like a Buddhist temple.
VR-driven work meetings may also become the norm as a growing percentage of the US and global workforce opts to work remote at least part of the time.
The “pragmatic” adoption of VR will be when VR becomes as normal as smart phones for certain business applications (virtual deskspace, virtual meetings, certain kinds of 3D design work) or daily convenience (shopping, watching movies, chatting with friends). The network effects and pragmatic benefits of adoption will be what take the technology from the purview of gamers to the general public.
Pragmatism, Phase 2: Virtual Reality (and Haptics) + Artificial Intelligence
Integrating haptics into VR may allow us to develop almost any skill we need or want, moving us away from physical classrooms or spaces and into virtual “labs”. If we want to get good at hiring sales people, for example, a VR-simulated environment could offer the experience of hiring 50 programmatically-generated people in an environment that feels like an office, with an interaction that indistinguishably feels and sounds (along with all the other sensory experiences we often take for granted) like talking to real people.
The use of customized AI avatars in such learning environments could also provide real-time, customized feedback, allowing individuals to course correct as they go or to have a more reflective conversation with a teacher avatar after a learning exercise.
Pragmatism, Phase 3: Virtual Reality + Artificial Intelligence + Brain Machine Interface
The use of BMI to learn something new or overcome a mental obstacle opens up new territory: uploading a pattern of knowledge. Through firing of proper patterns in brain, BMI could be used to upload a set of knowledge that instantly “locks-in” a learning experience. Hypothetically, a person could do this as many times as they want for as many skills and experiences as they deem necessary or want to acquire.
Whether our minds are capable of accommodating an infinite number of experiences and skills is unclear, but it could be that by this time our minds are “in the cloud”, to reference Ray Kurzweil’s idea. We can imagine that this uploading could happen during sleep or be merged into conscious waking experience, depending on the safest and most efficient approach.
The types of skills and experiences that we choose could be for a “bad or good” goal, could be “selfish or selfless” — a parallel experience to our current use of Google and the Internet to learn or find out more about any given topic. But BMI would be more “pragmatic” than manual searching, and one day could absolutely be the norm.
Decades ahead, you may not need any particularly ambitious goal or any very extraordinary need in order to use BMI to get things done in daily life (from ordering food to communicating with coworkers, etc). As with smartphones, the pragmatic benefits will be so clear, the barriers to entry so low, that people (particularly young people unfettered by “how it used to be”) will simply adopt whatever is most pragmatically useful.
Power (“The World Eaters”)
“If you must break the law, do it to seize power: in all other cases observe it.” – Gaius Julius Caesar
I posit that a large segment of humanity will adopt transhuman technologies in order to gain control, power, and prestige.
I argue that this is an attempt to engage fully in the intense Darwinian competition of life – in an attempt to achieve security and/or prominence through dominance.
Almost unlimited power will be afforded to the person or group who controls the physical computers which house (a) the great artificial intelligence powers, and (b) the sentient and virtual experiences of people and AI agents. I am of the belief that in the coming century, almost all economic competition, political competition, and war will ultimately be a proxy for obtaining this pinnacle of technological control and power.
Indeed that quote from Caesar alludes to this very dynamic. The ultimate (in the literal sense) race for power will not be for market supremacy or the leadership of a nation, but for the dominance over all of intelligence itself – truly God-like power.
I’ve chosen to refer to people bent on the power motive as “world eaters” – as a direct contrast to pleasure-driven “lotus eaters.”
Here’s how such a motive might play it’s way out across the adoption if technology in the three phases:
Power, Phase 1: Virtual Reality
One of the reasons I believe VR hasn’t become a “big thing” yet is that beyond tech issues and cost hindrance, there’s no “profit addition”. When the iPhone was released for example, it helped people live their life more efficiently. I predict that when there’s a similar “pragmatic” life benefit, VR will take off on a broader scale. Business and industry have proved time and again to be the breeding ground for successful new technologies, which will undoubtedly include VR.
The threshold for using VR as an everyday tool in the workplace will be the ability for individuals to have many different programs and displays that can be interacted with in multiple ways, when typing on a keyboard is considered as slow and outdated as keeping ledgers or recording by hand. This shift is already observed in manufacturing, where more than a third of U.S. manufacturers have adopted VR and AR technologies in 2018.
Likely within the next decade, millenials and the new generation will manipulate multiple virtual screens and interact with digital dashboards through use of VR and haptics. This new revolution in work processes and efficiency will have an impact on everything from the resulting product to the physical structure of the office (and more).
Another pragmatic use of VR environments will be the ability for individuals to enter virtual, optimized productive workspaces — like a scenic mountain view or other calming (or stimulating) environment that allows employees to better focus. The case here will be for Increased employee well being that leads to more efficient operation.
Instead of having 3 or 5 monitors set up on your desk, imagine having all the applications you want to access available to you in a VR space, with adjustable monitors and programs accessible all around you. Companies like Breakroom are working on this kind of application today:
It seems reasonable to suspect that, at some point, technologies like Breakroom won’t just be better for the environment (having 5 physical monitors means using a lot of plastic, metal, and glass), it’ll be an undeniably more effective and efficient way to work and collaborate.
Power, Phase 2: Virtual Reality (and Haptics) + Artificial Intelligence
In an even more immersive VR environment with advanced haptics technology, executives could hire the best talent from around the world. Essentially, employees could live in one place and work anywhere in the world without having to leave their homes and families. Work could be done in one virtual place that is as “real” to the employees as it is to now make a two-hour commute and visit a physical work space.
In a hyper-optimized environment with the addition of an AI avatar, employees could theoretically get even more done in less time by delegating tasks at light speed. Imagine having an AI ready to listen and respond to requests as quick as an individual can dole them out verbally. At some point, there will likely come a time where most businesses can’t operate or employees get a demanding job without knowing how to perform in this level of AI-optimized environment.
Furthermore, an AI avatar may at some point be able to respond to certain requests on an individual’s behalf in their absence, based on having learned an individual’s patterns of behavior and language over time. AI avatars may also be able to read an individual’s sensory information, learning their unique emotional patterns and “toggling” inputs that bring a person’s emotions to where they need to be in order for them to be optimally productive during chosen hours, go to sleep easier on command, etc.
Such delivered calibrated experiences could help individuals “ride” waves of activity and inactivity, with a smart system that ensures a person is at their mental peak as often as possible.
Hypothetically, this personal AI avatar could track every decision a person makes, measure how alert the individual was when they were made, and replicate experiences and interactions — everything from background color, vocal tones, conversation prompts, etc. — that drive individual optimum productivity.
It seems reasonable to suspect that at some point in the next 10-15 years, this kind of hyper-optimized work environment would be the only way to compete in the market, and aiming to grow a company without these technologies would be like growing a company today without the use of the internet (i.e. the idea itself would be laughable). Nothing forces adoption like the need to survive and compete – and the marketplace imposes these demands every hour of every day.
Power, Phase 3: Virtual Reality + Artificial Intelligence + Brain Machine Interface
The third phase in striving for power might involve the ability to leave the human body “behind”; opting to exist almost entirely as a connected brain, working at all hours and in a million directions, with the memory and creativity of a dozen “unenhanced” humans.
Ambition has always involved sacrifice. As the stakes get higher (i.e. the prospect of gaining control over the compute power that houses all AI and all VR human experience, truly God-like power) and technologies like VR, AI, and BMI advance, this need for sacrifice will increase dramatically.
Today’s aspiring U.S. President or aspiring Fortune 500 CEO might work 80 hours per week, permitting little sleep, a few meals per week with family, and complete absence of a social life or hobbies or any kind.
Tomorrow’s aspiring U.S. President or aspiring Fortune 500 CEO might sacrifice much more. In 30 or 50 years, it might be the case that anyone with the goal of growing a massive company or run for political office would undergo brain-machine interface and other “cognitive enhancement” procedures to:
- Eliminate the need for sleep
- Eliminate the need for love and connection (to allow for continuous productive work, unimpeded by the mental health needs of loving or being loved)
- Connect one’s memory to the cloud, accessing any and all internet information almost instantly while working in real time
- Create “split” versions of oneself to accomplish digital tasks. Artificial intelligence could be trained to learn how to do specific jobs normally done by the user (such as replying to email messages, conversing with members of specific business department, or generating other creative output), and these “splits” could be run in parallel with the user’s own efforts – getting vastly more done in the same amount of time
Such enhancements might be completely “par for the course” for anyone with serious aspirations – ripping them entirely from what we know today as the human experience and hurling them into an incessantly working transhuman state, capable of massive creative output to achieve their objectives.
It’s not hard to imagine that some ambitious people would almost entirely relegate their body to a kind of “stasis”, kept alive and cleaned by an automated system only to the extent necessary to keep the brain active and immersed fully in an augmented state of BMI hyper-productivity.
The idea is reminiscent of the “precogs” in the 2002 film Minority Report – who are essentially kept “plugged in” with their bodies a floating stasis state, making them more able to focus their energies entirely on their brain-machine interface and telepathic work:
An evolution from human to a form of intelligent hybrid will inevitably lead to a new physical form, or at least the experience of having an evolved form. Maybe instead of having two human eyes, individuals will have the option of seeing with eight human eyes and, with increased mental processing power, be able to accomplish four times as much at one time. With BMI, humans will hypothetically have the option to upload sets of knowledge uploaded to the brain, with the only limitation being price point or budget for more access to cloud resources.
This kind of transition – if embraced by some – will lead swiftly to a posthuman state, where the human experience is seen as explicitly malleable, and generations of (mostly young) people will be open to “becoming” something other than… well… human (I write about this topic in much greater depth in my essay called Human Ideals Will Tear Us From Humanity).
This merger of body, mind, and technology will be the “only way to win” in the commanding physical and virtual worlds of business, science, and leadership of any kind. Essentially, “power” will require enhancements that rip one almost entirely out of what we presently know as the “human experience”.
Steering the Transhuman Transition – Considerations Moving Forward
The scenarios above provoke some important questions and considerations for the future of our species:
- Assuming robotics and automation is one day able to handle most of the work needed to sustain the economy and environment, should governments subsidize “lotus-eater” technologies and allow people to opt-out of society and enter a more blissful condition?
- When cognitive enhancements (BMI) become safe and somewhat common, should it be lawful for some jobs to require these enhancements?
- When people choose to spend the vast majority of their time in virtual environments, how will we prevent excessive atrophy of their muscles, bones, and organs?
- What will happen to the human population when friendships and lovers are richer and deeper when with an artificial intelligence entity than with a real person?
- Should an international coalition eventually be formed to regulate and “steer” the direction of these transhuman technologies?
While most of the answers to these questions aren’t clear, I believe the answer to the last question should be a resounding “Yes”.
Though we’re many years from the point where cognitive enhancements are commonplace and humanity mostly exists in virtual worlds, there will come a time when we’ll have a choice:
- Allow individual nations or companies to develop their own super-intelligent AI or develop their own “enhancements” to human mental capabilities in a kind of intelligence arms race, or
- Unite in an effort to regulate and steer the trajectory of sentience itself in an effort to stave off our own extinction and “birth” a better posthuman condition for future forms of life
Easier said than done, of course.
Sentience is the “stuff” of moral worth (the only thing that’s morally relevant in and of itself, as I argued in my first TEDx talk), the creation of sentience (AI) and the enhancement of sentience (BMI) are literally the most morally consequential technologies that we can currently imagine – and their direction should likely involve more than market forces and competitive interests.
A special thanks to Lauren D’Ambra for editing this work, and originally laying out these ideas from a series of my audio notes into a coherent initial text.
* I definitely do not have a thing for Mariah Carey. Definitely not.