A lot of terms are thrown around these days that allude to the possible shape of our future. Words like Technological Singularity, extropianism, postmortal, posthuman, and Transhuman. What do these words mean? What kind of future do they point to? Though they remain part of a school of thought that is still very much theoretical and speculative, this future appears to be becoming more likely every day.
Ultimately, the concept is pretty simple, in a complex, mind-bending sort of way. The theory has it that at some point in this or the next century, humanity will overcome death, scarcity, and all other limitations imposed on us by nature. The means vary, but it is believed that progress in any one or more of the following areas will make such a leap inevitable:
The gradual evolution of computers, from punch cards to integrated circuits to networking, shows an exponential trend upwards. With the concordant growth of memory capacity and processing speed, it is believed that it is only a matter of time before computers are capable of independent reasoning. Progress is already being made in this domain, with the Google X Labs Neural Net that has a connectome of a billion connections.
As such, it is seen as inevitable that a machine will one day exist that is capable of surpassing a human being. This sort of machinery could even be merged with a human’s own mind, enhancing their natural thought patterns, memory, and augmenting their intelligence to the point where their intelligence is immeasurable by modern standards.
Just think of the things we could think up once that’s possible. Well… you can’t exactly, but we can certainly postulate. For starters, such things as the Grand Unifying Theory, the nature of time and space, quantum mechanics, and other mind-bendingly complex fields could suddenly make sense to us. What’s more, this would make further technological leaps that much easier.
Here we have an area of development which can fall into one of three categories. On the one hand, advancements in medical science could very well lead to the elimination of disease and the creation of mind-altering pharmaceuticals. On the other, there’s the eventual development of things like biotechnology, machinery that is grown rather than built, composed of DNA strands or other “programmable” material.
Lastly, there is the potential for cybernetics, a man-machine interface where organic is merged with the artificial, either in the form of implants, prosthetic limbs, and artificial organs. All of these, alone or in combination, would enhance a human beings strength, mental capacity, and prolong their life.
This is the meaning behind the word postmortal. If human beings could live to the point where life could be considered indefinite (at least by current standards), the amount we could accomplish in a single lifetime could very well be immeasurable.
The concept of machines so small that anything will be accessible, even the smallest components of matter, has been around for over half a century. However, it was not until the development of microcircuits and miniaturization that the concept graduated from pure speculation and became a scientific possibility.
Here again, the concept is simple, assuming you can wrap your head around the staggering technical aspects and implications. For starters, we are talking about machines that are measurable only on the nanoscale, meaning one to one-hundred billionths of a meter (1 x 10-9 m). At this size, these machines would be capable of manipulating matter at the cellular or even atomic level. This is where the staggering implications come in, when you realize that this kinds of machinery could make just about anything possible.
For starters, all forms of disease would be conquerable, precious metals could be synthesized, seamless, self-regenerating structures could be made, and any and all consumer products could be created out of base matter. We’d be living in a world in which scarcity would be a thing of the past, our current system of values and exchange would become meaningless, buildings could build themselves, and out of raw matter (like dirt and pure scrap) no less, societies would become garbage free, pollution could be eliminated, and manufactured goods could be made of materials that are both extra-light and near-indestructible.
All of this progress, either alone or in combination, will add to a future that we can’t even begin to fathom. This is where the concept of the Technological Singularity comes in. If human beings were truly postmortal (evolved beyond death), society was postscarce (meaning food, water, fuel and other necessities would never be in short supply), and machines would be capable of handling all our basic needs.
For Futurists and self-professed Singularitarians, this trend is as desirable as it is inevitable. Citing such things as Moore’s Law (which measures the rate of computing progress) or Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns – which postulates that the rate of progress increases exponentially with each development – these voices claim that it is humanity’s destiny to conquer death and its inherent limitations. If one looks at the full range of human history – from the Neolithic Revolution to the Digital – the trend seems clear and obvious.
For others, this prospect is both frightening and something to be avoided. When it comes right down to it, transhumanity means leaving behind all the things that make us human. And whereas some people think the Singularity will solve all human problems, others see it as merely an extension of a trend whereby our lives become increasingly complicated and dependent on machinery. And supposing that we do cross some kind of existential barrier, will we ever be able to turn back?
And of course, the more dystopian predictions warn against the cataclysmic possibilities of entrusting so much of our lives to automata, or worse, intelligent machines. Virtually every apocalyptic and dystopian scenario devised in the last sixty years has predicted that doom will result from the development of AI, cybernetics and other advanced technology. The most technophobic claim that the machinery will turn on humanity, while the more moderate warn against increased dependency, since we will be all the more vulnerable if and when the technology fails.
Naturally, there are many who fall somewhere in between and question both outlooks. In recent decades, scientists and speculative fiction writers have emerged who challenge the idea that technological progress will automatically lead to the rise of dystopia. Citing the undeniable trend towards greater and greater levels of material prosperity caused by the industrial revolution and the post-war era – something which is often ignored by people who choose to emphasize the down sides – these voices believe that the future will be neither utopian or dystopian. It will simply be…
Where do you fall?