Science fiction doesn’t give us answers so much as it asks us questions.
What if androids developed self-awareness?
What if we couldn’t communicate with an alien race innocently trying to kill us?
What if Scott Bakula could time travel within his lifetime, connected to his own time only through the cigar-smoking, adorably womanizing hologram of Dean Stockwell?
Some questions are better left unanswered, but progress marches forward regardless. For better or worse, we’re about to see what happens when the human mind (or at least some projected version of it) goes digital and leaves the body behind.
There’s plenty about which to be excited…and scared.
Google is pouring billions into achieving “real” immortality through nanotechnology, bionics, and more.
Eter9 wants to give you the option of “cyber eternity” by using artificial intelligence to make you a digital “counterpart” that lives within a social media network and keeps “you” liking, sharing, and talking long after you’re dead.
Humai promises to be able to put a human brain in a machine body within the next 30 years (who doesn’t love RoboCop???). With that combination, they’ll use cloning, nanotechnology, and more to replace brain cells as they die, achieving not just immortality but a near-total escape from degenerative biology.
This raises all sorts of philosophical and practical questions, many of which have already been explored by science fiction. One area of human life, however, has received short shrift from our Heinleins, Asmiovs, and Dicks.
It’s the Economy, Stupid
If we’re to believe futurists like Ray Kurzweil, we’re not just headed for robotic bodies, but towards a world where consciousness is all-digital and all-cloud, and where bodies are projected and controlled rather than truly possessed. And one of the necessary features of that world is a marked reduction in consumption, at least in all traditional senses.
According to the experts, we already have an information economy, but goals of techno-pseudo-immortality draws us to imagine a world where information and the electricity that facilitates it are literally all we need to consume. No food, no shelter (except for a bit of server space), no clothing, no cars, no sports equipment, no Hummel figurines…
Who’s going to keep the lights on? Will money even matter when most of what we need to trade is intangible and when the physical tasks we need carried out are almost entirely automated? What does an economy look like when it doesn’t include any tangible goods?
Manual labor is already losing ground to our new robot overlords, and talk of things like guaranteed minimum incomes and non-work-based economies are already becoming more practical. If any form of capitalism is to survive the impending apocalypse of digital immortality, these seem like essential ingredients.
Of course, this raises questions of political control (i.e., who will wield it and over what) and socioeconomic class. Controlling the flow of information will have even more direct and drastic consequences than it already does, with the potential to marginalize others’ existence—not in an abstract, liberal arts degree kind of way, but by achieving the complete segregation or disposal of expressions, thoughts, and identities.
It’s like 1984 meets 2001.
Scores of Amazon’s best-selling novelists are undoubtedly scribbling their speculations on the matter as we speak, but real world science might have answers for us soon enough.
I hope they’re good, ’cause we’ll be living with them for awhile.
Daniel A. Guttenberg is an Atlanta-based writer who fell into the startup world by accident and has been gleefully treading water ever since. He will be survived by his beard and his legacy of procrastination.
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