DAILY MAIL & GUARDIAN 15 October 1999

New World

The last human century?

JAMAIS CASCIO advises suits and other Hollywood weasels on what could happen over the next hundred years. He worries about being called a futurist.


few weeks ago, I opened up my website, post-human.org. Since then, I've receive a few letters asking me what the name means, and how it relates to what I write.

I believe that we are coming the end of what will be seen as the last human century. By the end of the twenty-first century, we will be living in a world that has other forms of intelligence. This will utterly reshape our collective cultures and societies.

The use of the term "post-human" is intended to draw attention. Humans could well survive for centuries, even as other forms of intelligent life take the stage. But human beings are, for better or worse, simply the product of traditional biological evolution. We carry with us the genetic remnants of life on the savannah, biological code that pressures us to breed and then leaves us to die once the perpetuation of the species is taken care of. Culture and civilization mitigates this somewhat, but we are, in the end, results of our own biology.

Computers play a role in this change, of course, but not necessarily in the manner in which you might expect. To me, there are three ways in which humankind, over the next century, may well find itself no longer alone as a sentient species: Invention. Directed Evolution. Discovery. All three are distinct possibilities, and lead to difficult questions -- foremost being, what does it mean to be human in a post-human world?

Invention is the path suggested by writers such as Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil. In Mind Children, Moravec argues that artificial intelligence is inevitable, and that human minds will eventually be "uploaded" into machine brains and bodies. In his 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines, Kurzweil takes this argument into cyberspace, showing the power of twenty-first century computing (simply following Moore's Law), and arguing that, by the end of the next century, it will be hard to tell "natural" minds apart from "artificial" ones.

With the Directed Evolution path, humans could choose to alter the human genome to make radical changes to the collective biological heritage. This, too, is a result of the information technology revolution, as IT has made it possible to rapidly identify and classify the human genome. From life-extension to memory enhancements to resistance to diseases, biotechnological changes that seem terrifying at first will likely seem commonplace soon afterwards. Lee Silver's book, Remaking Eden, shows how the pressure to reproduce pushes human societies to accept radical biotechnologies. I think that Silver makes a persuasive case, even if he shies away from taking it too far. As these technologies progress, there will come a point where altered-genome humans and "baseline" humans will no longer be able to interbreed. For biologists, this is a strong characteristic of speciation.

Finally, the Discovery path suggests that, given the resources being dedicated to the search, evidence of extraterrestrial intelligent life will likely be found in the next century, if it is to be found at all. Many readers here are already running SETI@Home on their personal machines. This project, taking advantage of "unused" computing cycles around the world, is already considered to be the largest distributed computing system ever as it chews through data from the Arecibo radio telescope.

None of these are definite, must-happen, scenarios -- but neither are they mutually exclusive. It is entirely conceivable that, in one hundred years, we will be discussing the pros and cons of sending a ship filled with long-lived biological humans and self-evolving intelligent machines towards the section of the galaxy where we picked up the functional equivalent of television signals.

Or perhaps a future of multiple, competing intelligent species will be less friendly. Bruce Sterling's "Shaper and Mechanist" stories, collected as Schizmatrix Plus, sets up a very interesting world where the line of humans that chose to adjust their biologies and the line of humans that chose to merge with machines do not get along well at all, particularly in a universe with other forms of intelligence.

It's worth stressing that a non-human intelligence would not necessarily think like a human. Most interpretations of NHI with greater-than-human intelligence imagine something that is just like us, except, you know, smarter. Data or Spock can do incredible calculations in their heads, recall facts instantly, etc. They have drawbacks -- hampered by cold logic, a lack of a sense of humor, or (as with many AI's in scifi) driven to murder by their inhumanity.

But think about the changes to how human beings think as they grow from children to adults. Children, especially small children, do not think like adults. Abstraction, complexity, subtlety... these are largely lost on children. Yes, yes, kids say the darndest things and all, but they simply don't think in the relatively sophisticated way that adults do. What's more, a child can't even conceive of what it would be like to think like an adult. A grown-up's paths of reasoning are beyond the understanding of a child.

It is possible that, to humans, a NHI will seem similarly opaque. It would be very hard to understand their reasoning -- it would seem "wrong" and senseless -- precisely because their reasoning would be sophisticated in a way that is literally incomprehensible to us.

This may all sound very science-fictiony and irrelevant to hard-nosed business people trying to figure out how to get the last penny out of the pockets of consumers. I'd counter by saying that the question of who we are and what we want to be may well be the critical issue of the next century. Wars could be fought over it. Empires and riches could be won and lost.

The technological pressures driving the Invention and Directed Evolution paths suggest to me that these may be opt-out paths, not opt-in. That is, we (as a global society) may have to choose not to develop these technologies, a task that we haven't been very good at in the past. Furthermore, it is arguable that a nation or group that develops these sorts of technologies will be at an advantage over those that don't, adding political pressure and fear of falling behind to the forces pressing us to move past human.

I've always been of the mind that thinking about these sorts of issues ahead of time gives us a chance to discover some of the hidden surprises we'd have in store for us. The world will look very different than we imagine it today, but I, for one, would like even a hazy glimpse of its shape as it rises in the distance.

© Daily Mail & Guardian - 15 October 1999

* Jamais Cascio is a consultant and writer specializing in scenarios of how we may live over the next century. His clients have included mainstream corporations, film and television producers. He has written for many publications, including Wired and TIME, and is currently working on a screenplay. He is an active member of the oldest and most influential online community, The Well, and believes that new technologies are pushing people into new social, economic and political realms.

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Published weekly by the Electronic Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, South Africa. Send email comments to the editor, Gavin Dudley