What does it mean to be human? Simple question, right? It’s all in the DNA. Except when it’s not. There are traces of non-hominid ancestry in our genetic codes: Neanderthal, Denisovan, who knows what else? Alright, well maybe it’s our complex brains — nope, dolphins may very well be as smart as we are — or our ability to use tools — nope, crows do, too. Okay, so maybe it’s not such a simple question, and — brace for this — it’s probably going to get even more complicated.
In To Be a Machine, Mark McConnell takes us for a ride to the cutting edge of the Transhumanist movement, where hackers, engineers, artists, programmers, and others are working to shape the next phase in human evolution: one that may challenge our current conceptions of humanity to unimaginable degree.
While crows (along with chimps and other species) do use tools, no other species has managed to evolve the kind of technology we have, or become so dependent upon it. Our tools have been a vital part of the human story. From the very being, they’ve been an extension of our being, allowing us to adjust to challenging environments, conquer predators, and ultimately shape the world in our image.
Already, McConnell’s Transhumanists are making the first steps toward fusing human with machine in ways that will enable us to not only compensate for our weaknesses, but become better than we ever were before. To become something more than human, or at least what we think of as human today.
Over time, the line between man and machine could become blurred, or even non-existent. As science advances, the marriage between flesh and technology could potentially become the standard rather than the exception. We could be looking toward a future in which getting a cybernetic implant — perhaps one for interacting with a virtual digital world — might be an expected rite of passage, like we see getting a drivers license or graduating high school today.
Maybe our flesh itself will be replaced entirely, by accident or design. One day, death itself might be cheated by backing up our consciousness to some kind of high grade hard drive. Is a digital consciousness shorn free of its fleshy body still human, or is it something else?
What if the future human being is something that we create? Provided that we don’t manage to destroy ourselves, the development of a sentient machine — an artificial intelligence — is almost an inevitability. A new being of this sort would be made in our own image. We are all we know, after all. Should we consider it human?
Perhaps the human animal is nothing more than a transitional stage: a fleshy pupa destined to transform into a digital being more resplendent and capable, taking flight to the stars. Will it love us? Fear us? Hate us? Will we survive this metamorphosis?
If we are doomed to join the Neanderthals and Denisovans, we can at least take some comfort in the fact that, much like we carry their genetic legacy, our own inheritor species will carry something of our own DNA, albeit digital.