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Cyborgs, future of humanity.

One more interview question from Arianna Dagnino in Italy. (On November 19, 2004, I'm on a panel about “Digital Eternity” Futurshow 3003 in Milano, and Ari is the moderator.)

Q 160. We humans used to think of ourselves as the key players on stage. And we want to stay at the centre of it: we’ve been using children and/or works of art and science to grasp a sense of immortality, of life that still goes on after our death. But maybe one day the human race will simply disappear to be replaced by more intelligent beings (robots?). Is there any hope for us in the long run — at least as a race, if not as individuals? What is a human being going to look like a hundred or a thousand years down the line?

A 160. As you say, even if an individual achieves personal immortality, there’s social sorts of immortality. Your genes may survive in your descendants, and your ideas may survive in the minds of others. A society has a kind of hive mind which we all participate in, and the hive mind is potentially immortal.

I think it’s very unlikely that we would be replaced by purely mechanical robots. Biology is vastly superior to mechanics — for instance, unlike machines, biological organisms have homeostasis, that is, an ability to repair themselves. But what could happen is that, on the one hand, we begin to tinker with the genome, altering our biological make up and, on the other hand, we create mechanical devices to augment our bodies. Certainly in a thousand years we can expect to be cyborgs, that is, genomically tailored biological beings with mechanical add-ons.

Amputees are already using very high-tech artificial limbs. And I don’t think a brain prosthesis is out of the question. I often write of a device that I call an “uvvy” for “universal viewer.” It’s a soft wireless computing device that rests on the nape of your neck and gives you instant cell phone abilities, internet browsing, and access to your lifebox database. At some point a person without an uvvy might not be considered a whole person at all.

But even though our bodies will be upgraded in various ways, I don’t think human nature won’t change very much. When I wrote my novel about the age of Peter Bruegel , it was borne in upon me how similar the people I see on the street are to the people in Bruegel’s paintings. My prediction is that people won’t change very much, and the overarching hive-mind of human society will also remain much the same.

We are close to having the uvvy, what with our increasingly powerful wireless devices. Cell phones have already greatly changed the details, if not the essence, of social dynamics.

What’s still missing is a seamless user interface. Actually inserting wires into one’s brain is something that people will, quite correctly, never be willing to do. But perhaps we might be able to create tightly focused magnetic fields capable of interacting with the neurons in the brain stem. More realistically, we might wear what I call “stunglasses,” which combine a heads-up display with the user’s surroundings. Lightweight sensor-equipped fingerless gloves might allow someone to “type” simply by twitching their fingers. Everyone will have an uvvy within a hundred years. Cyberspace will ooze out of the machines to permeate every aspect of daily life.

But, even so, we’ll still be the same kinds of people: lustful and greedy, noble and inspired.

Forget not the eternal verities of human nature as depicted in the supremely wise Carl Barks tales of D. Duck.


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