Future Studies and Science Fiction revolve around each other as if they are gravitationally attracted. Both are about ideas. Both ask questions concerning Possible, Probable, Preventable, and Preferred futures. Often, the speculations of one turn into the reality with which the other must concern itself. When they intermix, the future can prove less of a surprise. Which is the basic idea, to be less surprised.
If we think of Human existence as white light and the Prism as technology, then what might shine out from that Prism when we shine our brilliance though it? What Possibilities might the future of intelligent life hold for a Post-Human Future? Where might we take technology? Or, better yet, where might technology direct our evolution?
This is heady territory, misty, murky and unclear. Right? Not necessarily. There are some markers ahead, looming from this fog as guideposts for us to the Possibilities, the Perils, and the Preferences. Our destination, if there is one, remains unclear, but the alternative pathways are becoming clearer.
From these 28 markers, I believe three distinct pathways emerge: The Path of the Genes, the Path of the Machine, and the Path of the Merging.
The Path of the Genes:
It’s likely Humans and Human Clones will reside alongside one another in the future. A percentage of Humans, as we know them, will remain unaffected by scientific breakthroughs — be they neo-Luddites, or a religious sect such as the Amish, or a native tribe dedicated to ancient ways. Thus, for a variety of reasons, more conservative and traditional Science Fiction expects unaugmented Humans trekking around the galaxy.
Probability dictates that Human Clones might have their place in society since the technology already exists and is slowly being perfected. Even if it ends up just a plaything for the wealthy, itʼs still a Possibility.
The Ghola is like a Clone except itʼs donor material is from a deceased subject. Through a understanding of cellular structure which makes our current understanding look primitive, each and ever cell contains a complete record of the donorʼs life up to the point of death. These memories can be reawakened through mental or physical stress, so the previous person is restored to life. This form of punctuated immortality is seen in the Dune books.
If you extend the concept of the Clone, you come to the Clone Continuer category. The easy part is the base technology of the Cloning process. Growing the Clone to the proper age requirement is tricker. The hardest aspect is the Continuer part of the equation, since it consists of Mind Transference from one body to another. This functional form of immortality may be beyond our technological grasp for a long while, but who can say with the current pace of technological advancement.
In contrast, there could be Genetically Enhanced beings. These people have had small modifications made to their genome such as the people depicted in the movie Gattaca or the Martians from the book Blue Mars. In effect, this category of Post- Humans strive to eliminate genes that contribute to things they wish to avoid and add genes for traits they consider desirable.
If we walk further along the pathway of Enhancement, we come to those who are Genetically Transformed. The difference here is the sheer amount of variation made to the genome. In essence, there is so much adding and subtracting of material that the end result is a new viable species. The Ousters from the Hyperion Cantos novels are an excellent example.
This development of a new viable species is the most Probable course Humanity will take when we push outward into deep space: our descendants could bear little resemblance to us because of the varying environments they have to adapt to.
The blending of Human and alien DNA is the Hybrid category. Unlike the gradual change of the Genetically Enhanced or the sheer amount of change in the Genetically Transformed, this is closer to the slamming together of differing genetic structures and making it work. The most popular examples of this come from the Star Trek franchise. Although current accepted science thinks itʼs highly unlikely, those who study the alien abduction phenomenon point to likely clues thatʼs itʼs already happening. Either way, it still stands as a Potentiality.
Replicants, such as the ones featured in Blade Runner, stand between Clones and Genetically Enhanced Post-Humans. They are formed from a combination of preexisting genetic material and biological enhancements. Essentially, they are Robots, but they are made of biological substrate. And as with other Robots, they are brought into the world at a predetermined point in their life cycle and with a specific purpose in mind, such as manual labor or prostitution. As with the Replicants of Blade Runner, these future lifeforms may have implanted memories and short life spans.
The last category in this first pathway, the X-Factored, is at the very fringes of modern science. X-Factored Humans represent what may be achieved through our cognitive evolution towards such things as Telekinesis, Telepathy, or Empathic ability, to name a few. Stanislaw Lem explores these ideas in Solaris and the manga and anime Akira is also a classic example.
The Path of the Machine: Part One.
Intelligent life might also take the form of inorganic life, namely Robots, Droids, Androids, and the Cyber.
The difference between a Robot and a Droid is one of sophistication. A Robot can have any configuration and is totally programmed. A Droid can still look like a rolling trashcan, as does R2-D2 in Star Wars, or it can become more Humanoid in shape like C-3PO. A Droid’s programming will be sophisticated enough so that we might wonder if itʼs approaching, or has crossed, the advanced sentience, Human-like, threshold. A Droid is aware of itself and its relationship to its organic masters. While a Robot obeys blindly because it’s programmed, a Droid obeys because it understands and accepts the programmed role society has for it.
Androids will exhibit Human-equivalent sentience and possibly even appearance. Seeking individual rights and equality within the context of Human society would be a normal pursuit for an Android. Through the use of self-programming, Androids will be capable of advancing themselves. Isaac Asimov’s Bicentennial Man and Steven Spielberg’s A.I. deal with these particular issues.
Cybers, such as those found in the book 970 A.D.S., will be virtually indistinguishable from current Humans. However, while Robots, Droids, and Androids will always fit within the Human context, The Cyber will have their own framework, just as any distinct species would. The Cyber would forge their own way in the political, economic, and social realms.
The Path of the Machine: Part Two.
Humanity’s relationship with its technologies has already moved from the analog to the digital realm. Future intellects which might arise due to this advancement are Avatars, Holograms, Machine Intelligence (M.I.), Digital Intelligence (D.I.), and the Ultimate Intelligence (U.I.).
An Avatar is a semiautonomous program whose development is analogous to the Robot or Droid. At its most primitive it can handle only specific tasks. At its most sophisticated it can almost achieve a Droid-like level of understanding and free will. Unlike the Robot or Droid, an Avatar exists within the confines of a larger mainframe; it is but a piece of what a computer is doing.
As with an Avatar, a Holographic being is only part of a larger computer system. Its understanding and level of self- awareness are at the Droid to Cyber range. It interacts not as a program, but with the physicality of being a Hologram, like the Doctor on Star Trek: Voyager; it appears as flesh and blood, but is made of photons and force fields. It is a being of light, bound to the single perspective of itself.
A Machine Intelligence will most likely be a specific computer as a being unto itself, and not just a part of what a computer is running. Like 2001’s Hal-9000, this is a being that receives input and sends output on multiple vectors, while thinking and acting in the traditional plurality of its Machine heritage.
A Digital Intelligence is a subcategory of Machine Intelligence. A Digital Intelligence will not be bound within the context of a certain computer and can exist within the context of any computer matrix they find themselves in or have access to. A Digital Intelligence will reside as a consciousness spread over many, if not all, servers. Jane, from the Ender series, is an excellent example. Digital Intelligence can also refer to a being that spontaneously evolves within the network itself like The PuppetMaster from the film Ghost in the Shell.
An Ultimate Intelligence is the last evolutionary stage for the Machine Intelligence and the Digital Intelligence. This stage denotes the emergence of a being which literally knows everything, can compute everything. A Machine which has arrived at, or merged with, the Godhead. This emergence is one of the goals of the TechnoCore in the Hyperion Cantos novels.
The Path of The Merging:
A possible ultimate path for Post-Humanity involves Cyborgs, the Implant Governance Societies, a Hive Mind, the Cymek, Plugged Humans, Scanned Humans, the Cybrid, Decots, Nested Humans and Uplifted nonhuman animals.
The first step in merging involves the Cyborg — a cybernetic organism. It is the blending of Humanity and Machines through the integration of technology into our Human bodies. The use of such things as eyeglasses, hip replacements, and pacemakers might be considered as early precursor to the widespread adoption of cutting-edge Cyborg equipment of contemporary scientists who are already striving to become Cyborgs. Many Science Fiction stories have explored Cyborgs. One of the
best of the recent examples is Major Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell.
The Implant Governance Societies use Cyborg technology for a very specific reason: governance through neural augmentation and community-wide networks. The Wilsonʼs novel Vortex postulates three different shades of the same idea: Limbic Implant societies, Cortical Implant societies, and a combination limbic/cortical society.
In a Limbic Implant democracy, the technology is modulated and implanted around the more primitive areas of the Human brain to create an emotional and intuitive consensus. Roughly, the society feels together. This creates a situation where it is thought that long term survivability is in doubt due to the increased probability of collective insanity or fundamentalism.
In a Cortical Implant democracy, the augmentation is clustered around the neocortex. Itʼs a noun-based and logically mediated collective reasoning system of consensus building via the networks. Roughly, itʼs reasoning together. Long term survivability is thought to be significantly higher than the Limbic Implant system.
The combination society of Limbic and Cortical Implants was postulated to have the worse survivability rates. It would be ideally peaceful but ultimately unstable due to network mediated catatonic loops of suicide by blissful indifference.
If, or when, the trends driving the Cyborg paradigm continue, a possible end point is the merging of Human minds, through technology, into a single Hive Mind. Such minds and communities have been depicted in Frank Herbert’s novel Hellstrom’s Hive and in Star Trek’s Borg.
With a Hive Mind, there are no individuals, just an Over-Mind or Meta-Consciousness — essentially a literal Collective Consciousness. While this category has been portrayed in Science Fiction as nothing but evil, speculation exists that it doesn’t have to take this form.
Another possible point along the Cyborg pathway is the Cymek. A Cymek has left all the organics of the body behind and now exists as a living brain floating in a fluid filled capsule. It has a fully mechanical and reconfigurable body at itʼs disposal. The lifetime of a Cymek in indeterminate. The Legends of Dune Prequel Trilogy has a host of Cymeks in the fabric of the story.
A Plugged Human is one who still has a physical body, but does not live in the physical world. The mind lives in a virtual world while the body is cared for elsewhere. This category has been mainly portrayed in Science Fiction as something to avoid, but in certain situations, it could be a blessing. Plugged Humans have been depicted in such films as The 13th Floor and, of course, The Matrix.
Closely related to Machine Intelligence, Scanned Humans are Human consciousnesses that have been uploaded into a computer, leaving the body completely behind. In effect, this is a mental clone or possibly even a continuer of an individual who has essentially achieved immortality. Advanced uploaded consciousnesses have been depicted in hard Science Fiction novels like Greg Egan’s Diaspora or the television series, Max Headroom.
If we reverse the concept of a Scanned Human, we come to the Cybrid. This is a Machine Intelligence which has taken up permanent residence in Human flesh. In the Hyperion Cantos novels, John Keats is a Cybrid.
Decots are individuals who can literally be in two places at once through the application of remote controlling and mind transference. The best example is Motoko Aramaki from Masamune Shirow’s manga Ghost in the Shell 2: ManMachine Interface. To achieve this, a Post-Human would utilize a shell at its disposal, so that he or she, or “ve”, can transfer consciousness to it at will. Kiln People is also an exceptional example of the Decot.
The Nested Human is the next step in the evolutionary process of the Decot. A Nested Human is a single consciousness that has spread over several bodies; the consciousness of each is nested within each other to form the whole. This is the reverse of the Hive Mind — instead of many into one, one is split into pieces, but each is required to form the whole.
Uplifting describes any combination of Genetic or Cybernetic Enhancements to a nonhuman animal. It’s literally taking a cat, dog, dolphin, or monkey and bringing them closer to our level of sentience and intelligence. These themes are explored in many works by David Brin.
More to Come? This list, drawn from my study of Science Fiction, gives me considerable food for thought concerning current trends in technology and their impact on the Human condition. I have no doubt that the generations of Science Fiction writers to come will add to the possible categories. While some would seek to question just how Possible or Probable some of these categories are, I would rather ask different questions.
The trend is clear in all three pathways towards diversity and speciation. The questions for me then become: Are we going to be ready for this multiplicity? Or are we going to let our
ignorance, fear, and reluctance to embrace change shape our response? As we walk down these pathways, what is truly Plausible, Possible, Preferred, and Preventable? What shall we decide to embrace? to reject? Since…
“The best way to predict your future is to create it!” — Abraham Lincoln
The Pathway of the Genes:
- Clone Continuer
- Genetically Enhanced
- Genetically Transformed
The Pathway of the Machines, Part One:
The Pathway of the Machines, Part Two:
- Machine Intelligence
- Digital Intelligence
- Ultimate Intelligence
The Pathway of the Merging:
- Implant Governance
- Hive Minds
- Plugged Humans
- Scanned Humans
- Nested Humans