What do the Global Brain (GB) and human biological immortality have in common? At first, this appears to be a strange question. However, I believe that the realisation of the Global Brain will, perhaps inevitably, result in humans achieving extreme life extension, and eventually abolishing death due to aging.
The GB is an emergent worldwide entity of distributed intelligence, one facilitated by communication and the meaningful interconnections between billions of humans, via technology such as the internet.
I take the Global Brain to mean the expressive integration of all (or the majority) of human brains through technology and communication. It is a result of a ‘metasystem transition’ from the human brain (HB), to a global (Earth) brain. The GB is truly global, not only in geographical terms, but also in function.
It has been suggested that the GB has clear analogies with its human equivalent. For example, the basic unit of the HB is the neuron, whereas the basic unit of the GB is the human brain itself. While the HB is restricted to the space within a human cranium, the GB is constrained within the limits of our planet. The HB contains several regions that have specific functions, but remain connected to the whole (e.g., the occipital cortex for vision, the temporal cortex for auditory function, the thalamus, etc.). The GB contains several regions that have specific functions, but remain connected to the whole (e.g., search engines, governments, Wikipedia, etc.). Both neurons and brains carry evolutionary replicators: neurons carry genes, whereas brains carry memes.
Some specific analogies are:
1. The Broca’s area in the inferior frontal gyrus, which is associated with speech. This could be the equivalent of, say, media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s communications empire.
2. The motor cortex is the equivalent of the worldwide railway system.
3. The sensory system in the brain is equivalent to all digital sensors, a closed-circuit television network, internet uploading facilities, etc.
If we accept that the GB will eventually become fully operational (and this may happen within the next 40 to 50 years), then human evolution could face potentially severe repercussions. Apart from the fact that we would be able to change our genomes using technology (through techniques like synthetic biology or nanotechnology), there could be new evolutionary pressures that help extend the human lifespan to an indefinite degree.
Empirically, there is a basic underlying law that allows cortical neurons (the most relevant ones in my analogy) to have the same general lifespan as their human host. As natural laws are universal, I would expect the same law to operate in similar metasystems, with humans functioning as the basic operating units of the GB.
Therefore, if individual units (neurons) within a brain must, on the whole, live as long as the brain itself, around 100-120 years, then the individual human units within a GB must live as long as the GB itself, which could be indefinitely. The pre-determined maximum limit on the human lifespan would then cease to exist.
One valid suggestion is that neurons are maintained in good repair because they are so intricately interconnected, and contain so much valuable information, that it costs less in thermodynamic terms to repair them than to substitute them. Humans may now be in the same position.
We will become so deeply integrated and embedded within the GB’s virtual and real structures that it may make more sense for nature, when allocating resources, to maintain existing humans indefinitely, rather than eliminate them through aging and create new ones who would require extra resources to re-integrate themselves into the GB. The net result will be that humans will start experiencing an unprecedented prolongation of their lifespan, as the GB evolves to higher levels of complexity at low entropy and at a low thermodynamic cost.
A small number of new neurons are formed during adulthood, at least in certain parts of the brain; this would be the equivalent of new babies being born to replace any losses within the GB. However, neurons do not replicate or reproduce. Analogously, the same law that allows a neuron to live so long (because it does not reproduce) must also be true for humans: there must be a negative correlation between longevity and reproduction.
The majority of cortical neurons are maintained in good operating condition, and remain the same throughout life, instead of actively being replaced every few weeks (as in the case of, say, skin or blood cells). Neurons that form good synaptic connections are less likely to be eliminated through apoptosis (programmed cell death), and remain alive and operational until their host’s passing.
According to some predictions, humans will increasingly embed themselves within the GB, through highly sophisticated digital interfaces (the first examples include iPhones) that can anticipate the subject’s wishes, preferences and habits. Eventually, there could be suitable technology allowing direct brain-to-computer-to-brain (GB) communication.
As mentioned above, I would expect that it will cost more in energy terms to replace a human brain (through allowing to die and then creating a new one via the conventional route) than to maintain an existing one. Those humans who integrate themselves into the GB, and form robust connections with others, will be less likely to die compared to those who are weakly integrated.
When fully operational, the GB must rely on its individual constituents – individual human brains interconnected through technology. Without human input, the GB cannot exist. Furthermore, it cannot exist without technology. This is similar to the human brain – a neuron contributes to the whole, but without suitable connections, the individual neuron does not survive.
This is not a magical or fictional process. The sequence of events will happen according to natural laws. Human brains. as individual units of the GB, will be subjected to increased pressures that facilitate longer survival. This is not a teleological argument. The GB does not have any intent or purpose. It is just an instrument of nature, forming part of the general direction of evolution from simple to complex. Within our specific niche, dependent on technology, society and communication, we must adapt and evolve quickly in order to be successful. A hierarchical progress from simple to higher intelligence is a natural consequence (or requirement) of this. It follows that nature will favor mechanisms that lead to higher intelligence quickly, abandoning slow, non-specific mechanisms, such as traditional natural selection. Resources will be shifted from primarily maintaining the germline at the expense of the body (the slow process of natural selection), to maintaining the brain (a fast process for achieving higher intellectual complexity).
This issue is also relevant from another point of view. Those of us who are interested in significant life extension, and have exhausted the benefits offered by nutrition, lifestyle, supplements and exercise, have little choice. We must wait for new biological or nanotechnology-based therapies in order to prolong our lifespan. There is little else we can do (apart from some fundraising perhaps), but wait for others to come up with the research and solutions. However, if the GB – longevity theory is considered, there could be direct, practical steps available to anyone who is interested.
The main suggestion of this theory is to increase cognitive input, and facilitate integration into the GB. This means we should follow an intentional, purposeful and meaningful program of increased cognitive stimulation, avoiding routine, boredom, and monotony. We should broaden the fields of our awareness, and engage in goal-seeking behaviour to maximise cognitive and behavioural resources, actively searching out any cognitive stimulation or challenge through exposure to novel and innovative environments, societal interactions, cultural inputs, interactions with technology (meaningful internet use, digital assistants and other silicon-based technology), positive thinking, intellectual achievements and hormetic stimulation via unconventional channels (sexual, mechanical, chemical, etc.)
We should act to increase available choices. Normally, if our brain has only a limited number of options, it selects the first available one by default, without any purposeful effort. However, if it faces several choices, it will need to evaluate and compare each, to decide which one is most suitable under the circumstances.
Somebody may ask: “Are you saying that I will live longer if I just regularly update my Facebook profile? Will I live longer if I only think about it, or if I do a few crosswords?”
This is like telling someone who wants to become a fit athlete: “All you have to do is a few push-ups.” I am referring to an all-encompassing lifestyle, a sustained, intentional effort to embed oneself in the GB and increase meaningful input of cognitive information of sufficient magnitude into one’s brain. This will cause epigenetic changes that will repair and maintain somatic cells, reducing their risk of age-related death.
Research into the effects of environmental enrichment shows that increased social and ambient stimulation has positive physical effects on diverse parts of the body, such as neural tissues, the immune system and antioxidant defences, among others.
This is a direct link between information (cognitive inputs), and biological/genetic mechanisms. As information is received, processed and distributed, several biological processes are activated. Mechanisms based upon hormesis (low-dose stimulation, high-dose inhibition) influence physical molecules throughout the body, and thus improve mechanisms that repair, maintain and protect bodily tissues against age-related insults.
These epigenetic modifications result in a fitter organism, that is better able to cope with the new pressures encountered in our increasingly sophisticated society.
So, in summary, I believe that the emerging GB is a natural step towards the progressive increase of complexity and universal intelligence. We must adapt to this change and form part of it, in order to facilitate natural mechanisms that lead to a reduced rate of aging and an increased lifespan. Otherwise, we will continue to perish as individuals.
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