What Happens When the Wealthy Upgrade Mind and Body?
I recently wrote a piece about a not-that-distant future in which the majority of us either don’t need to or can’t work for wages — a world in which we have leisure and will need to figure out what to do with it. I suggested that we start planning for this likely future now, by instituting universal basic income schemes.
We will also need to invest massive sums in improving education and strengthening the voluntary and creative sectors. The goal here is to maximize the chances that most of us will come to accept a much broader definition of what it means to add value to the social fabric than we do now in our acquisitive, earned income-driven culture. If we don’t do this, the paradigm shift could become a recipe for political instability and social dysfunction.
One of the Coming Revolutions is Us
If we do these things, the New World will undoubtedly be a better place for most of us than it is now. Human suffering, anxiety, and the endemic violence we inflict on each other should diminish to the lowest levels we’ve seen since civilization began. But what happens when we look further down the road?
We know the AIs will keep getting smarter, and we know that both nano-technology and our ability to manipulate our genome will make exponential leaps. At some point, bio-engineered man/machine hybrids will be a real option — part of our efforts to extend human life far beyond the bounds of our current piddling three-score and a little bit. There is no reason to think that we will stop short of augmenting brain/mind functions as we begin to create customized humans. If we increase our thinking capacity by somehow connecting, or even marrying our cognition to artificial cognition, will consciousness transform itself?
So ………, is a being that lives to be three-hundred who has manipulated his genome, added robotic parts to himself and boosted his cerebral capacity exponentially, still recognizably a member of the species homo sapiens? In his follow-up to Sapiens, Homo Deus, Dr. Yuval Hariri recommends that we give this fellow a new species designation. He suggests Homo Deus. Maybe I’ve read too much Greek tragedy, but I don’t like the name — it smacks of hubris. Others call it transhumanism.
Tyranny of the Superhumans?
Here is what worries me. Elites always get there first. We don’t have a track record of distributing seductive new, game-altering goodies widely or fairly. There is no reason to think that small groups of radically altered super-humans will want to share their super-ness beyond a certain point.
In the past, aristocratic elites were only different from the rest of us in relatively superficial ways. They were richer, they had leisure, they were better educated, they had monopolies on political and/or military power — but they were still recognizably us. The barriers between elites and non-elites were never impenetrable.
But suppose the trends I am predicting here come to pass, and the Few take the first advantage. This inequity is not like all previous inequities; it is a hard-wired distinction, an insuperable gap. We will have created an evolutionary distance between classes of humans. If the few initial superhumans say, “why extend these epochal human customizations widely,” will those quaint old Sapiens be in any position to gainsay the decision? Perhaps Homo Novus will say, “let us comfort the masses with the nostrums offered by prophets, new and old. Let’s encourage them to move deeply into virtual environments or jack their pleasure centers directly into the grid. Ultimately let’s help them wither away. They will have their pleasures and no material concerns. There will be no suffering to energize discontent with the fundamental gulf between them and us.”
Cheery little speculation, isn’t it? But this surmise is far from a wild-eyed piece of science fiction on steroids. We are not talking time-travel, the conquest of the galaxy and teleportation here. I am just extrapolating the rapid developments of technical innovations that are already here and combining them with my historical insight into elite behavior, as seen many times in many social contexts.
There is a passage in Arthur C. Clarke’s great novel, Childhood’s End, wherein he suggests that homo sapiens are not equipped to prosper or perhaps even stay sane in a vast and indifferent universe. Naked and alone without god or other protective illusions, residents on a planet in a remote corner of a galaxy with 100 billion stars in a universe with 100 billion galaxies, we are just not able to find or even comprehend our place or our destiny.
Perhaps, we need to become Homo Novus just to survive. I can accept this philosophically in my more thoughtful moments. But I am sapiens; sapiens is me. I hope our successors at least put up a plaque.