If the world of cyborgs, nanotechnology and virtual reality has always seemed a little far-fetched to you, you’re not alone. Despite the wealth of technology now being applied to address our everyday physical needs – hip replacements, cochlear implants, pacemakers – it still boggles the mind to think of, say, the Borg one day becoming a reality.
This is not to say, of course, that the future of humanity involves mass adoption of a hive-like mentality and complete abdication of individuality. To the contrary, according to Ray Kurzweil, humanity’s path is based on heightening and fine-tuning those very elements of our race that make it what it is.
In his 2005 book, The Singularity is Near, Kurzweil details the technological breakthroughs and societal changes that will accompany our transition from a primarily biological species to one that effortlessly combines biology and technology. Successfully doing so, he contends, will advance us to the next stage of evolution: the Singularity. (For anyone who doesn’t think that’s so crazy, consider that Kurzweil’s ultimate destiny for humanity is to one day populate the far reaches of the universe with our ineffably superior technological-intellectual civilization.)
Through the same sort of step-by-step technological development that has made computers and communication so accessible over the last several decades, biological humans will gradually change over to mechanical humans as they update their various body parts to achieve health and longevity. Already, he points out, we have implants whose software can be updated from outside the body; already nanotechnology is showing great strides in its ability to perform tasks at the molecular level. One day soon they will be able to do so inside of us.
So what does it all mean? Well, it depends where you’re coming from. Kurzweil’s research has demonstrated that humanity could someday soon develop the ability to say goodbye to disease and, eventually, even death. This is not to say that humans will live forever, rather that the length of one’s existence will be a choice. To many, this probably constitutes a great boon.
With the proposed advancements, however, come not only the dangers associated with the technology itself (runaway nanobot replication, genetic supervirus, robotic takeover, to name a few of the most alarming), but also a sneaking suspicion that we may lose something that makes us…well…human. According to Kurzweil, our humanity rests in our curiosity and drive to extend our boundaries of knowledge (none of which would be lost at the Singularity), not our frail biological bodies. Others aren’t so sure.
Unfortunately, this may be one of those debates that can’t be solved until the evidence is right in front of us. In the meantime, it is easy to take Kurzweil’s point: that while we may be uncomfortable with the idea of letting machines so thoroughly invade our lives, many of us have already done so. The difference between a tablet and a neural implant may today look very huge, but will it once we see all the intermediate, helpful, even necessary steps? Only time will tell.*
*On a slightly related note, there is no reason to believe that humans after the Singularity will not still use meaningless clichés.