A Birthday Dreamscape | Act I: Digital Gods and A Voyage to the Edge of the Universe
July 10, 2015 § Leave a comment
Amidst birthday blues, a middle-aged woman contemplates humans’ digital trajectory, the Age of Data, and her own destiny, as she samples arts reflecting artificial intelligence, quantified self, virtual reality, lifelogging and other digital advances, in a series of reveries.
April. My birthday was coming.
Perhaps as a defense mechanism against the anxiety of putting on another year, my mind wandered far and wide.
Act I – Voyage to the edge of the Universe
First it scans the entire humanity’s creation and evolution, as narrated by the brilliant Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari in his brilliant new book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind”. Homo sapiens (of whom I am one) came to dominate the Planet through three great “Revolutions”: the Cognitive, the Agricultural, and the Scientific, he posited. We conquered the world because of our affinity for myth-making and stories. Our fictions allow us to cooperate. We buy into universally accepted “imagined realities” that bind us together and have given us power: Religion. Money. Nation states. Corporations… We are now so powerful we can trump nature and be our own intelligent designers.
Harari’s framework makes perfect sense to me. His wit, sarcasm and subversive humor are very much to my taste. However, more than how we got here, I am on an emergency to know where we are going. Hence, I cannot help but skip 70,000 years to jump to the last chapter: “The End of Homo Sapiens”.
The book charts not only mankind’s ascent from humble hunter-gatherer origins to his triumph as “the master of the entire Planet and the terror of the ecosystem”, but also vision of the “superhumans” of the future. Homo sapiens may be in our last few hundred years, he says. Bound not necessarily for extinction, but for “upgrades” into new creatures. Four billion years of natural selection will be replaced by humans’ intelligent self-design in any of three ways, through
- biological engineering (modifying organisms on biological and genetic levels),
- cyborg engineering (combining organic with non-organic parts into bionic beings), and
- engineering of completely inorganic beings (digital mind created by computer code, complete with a sense of self, consciousness and memory).
… if humankind does not annihilate itself in the meanwhile, that is.
As scary and far-fetched as these scenarios may sound, none of them is pure fiction. All of them are already occurring in reality, as Harari demonstrates with numerous examples.
My mind is the most spellbound by Upgrade Scenario No. 3 – in essence, superhuman digital gods, created ourselves.
What will they be like, these disembodied digital souls? If they become coded essence, will they still have any physical forms? Will they have genders? Are the genders 0s and 1s? How do they mate? If they mate? Will there be carnal pleasure of any kind? Will sports cease to exist, other than chess, poker, mahjong, and the like? How do these superhumans establish pecking order? Or will equality of “life” finally be achieved? By what will power and wealth be defined? To what further end will power and wealth still be useful means? What will be the equivalent of religion and ideology? Or will there be new bases of conflicts and persecution? Will the natural world finally be left alone and other species recover their diversity, now that superhumans only need to roam around in the “cloud”? Will any kind of “hardware” still be necessary as physical carrier of codes? If so, who makes the hardware? Robots, at the command of superhumans? What then differentiates robot “brain” from that of the superhumans, subordinating the former to the latter?
With these questions swirling like meteors, I realize my mind has gone to the edge of the universe. Before falling off into the dark eternal nothingness, I make a swift cosmological about-face towards the familiar comfort of Planet Earth. Shortly after re-entering the solar system, I stumble upon the Powers family. As surprising as the encounter is, the strange story of the tycoon family, as I saw in the opera “Death and the Powers” last year, suddenly makes sense, Harari’s book and my cosmic journey to visit the digital gods having provided the proper context.
“Death and the Powers”, an MIT Media Lab opera produced by an all-star ensemble of composer renowned for applying technology to music, poet laureate librettist and Tony Award-winner stage director, with a cast of human, cyborg and robot characters, performed on a high-tech stage, told the story of Simon Powers and his family. The terminally-ill billionaire refuses to die, and he defies death by uploading his entire consciousness to the “System”. He urges his family to join him. This leaves his clan torn apart – his cyborg prodigee assisting him with the transition and all too eager to join, his compassionate daughter opting to stay behind with mortal humans, and his (third, glamorous and favorite) wife confused, making love on stage with the “System”.
I reviewed the production last year, calling it a “futuristic opera” like everyone else did, including its creators. But with the benefit of hindsight, knowing Sapiens all eventually became gods, I now see that Simon Powers was simply the pioneer, and his story bizarrely interesting only because of that seminal moment of transition!
My mind lingers in his digital heaven a bit longer to see what happened after his upload-enabled ascension. Apparently droves of other sapiens followed, rich ones first; then whatever technology and resources required became accessible to common men, and generations later, the transition towards superhumankind was complete.