Abstract – Doing It Now – Sean McMullen

There are a few issues specific to writing science fiction about transhumanism that need to be clarified before we start. Firstly, we authors are as concerned with entertainment as we are with predicting the future. Next, if you create a good enough scenario, people will want to build your scenario in the real world (Neuromancer), or make sure that they do not build it (1984). Most importantly, while researchers, engineers and activists will point out the benefits or pitfalls of a new technology, the science fiction author generally shows you how it feels to live with that technology.

The themes in science fiction parallel those in real-world science. There are examples of making people more like machines (bionics, cyber-augmentation), making machines more like people (AI, robotics), putting people into machines (virtual environments, human-machine chimeras), and sculpting people to be greatly improved upon the original design (genetic engineering, cyber-avatars). This leads to speculation about whether machines will become autonomous and dominate the future, humans will enhance themselves to maintain their dominance, or some sort of alliance will eventuate.

We already have some evidence that serious change is not far off, and it is actually lack of evidence. Several decades of searching for radio signatures of extra-terrestrial civilizations has yielded nothing at all. The implication is that civilizations such as ours move to a very different suite of values, technologies, needs and practices just two or three centuries after industrialization. There would be a brief blip of radio noise from their planet, followed by silence. What does silence mean? Have they merely gone to optical fiber technology, or have they become beings that do not require our sort of communication? I incline to the latter theory, and this means that we shall go seriously transhuman well before the millennium is over.

That is the distant future. Back on Earth, we already have am extensive artificial environment that already allows us to live in an early trans-human condition. We in this room have access to mobility, communications, medical care, information and influence that even a head of state could not have commanded just a century ago. Feeding ourselves takes us only a small fraction of the day, clothing ourselves takes even less, and many of us commute daily over distances that were once for most people the journey of a lifetime. Getting old was something we did in our thirties, now one can create offence by saying that people in their sixties are old. We are no longer the humans we used to be.

How far and fast can this process go? While many people are still subsistence farmers, they often have a cheap mobile phone or at least communal internet. The rest of us show serious distress if deprived of our phone, internet, laptop and credit card for even 24 hours, and would be starving within a week if our supply economy failed. Put another way, humanity has different degrees of early transhumanism at the moment. Machines with a degree of self-awareness are less than a decade away, and bionic human-computer interface will not be far behind, and prototype immortality is already with us. Currently one can live on after death with Facebook and other web environments, and while these expressions of self are not yet self-aware, they can convince other people, and so are the first tentative step toward immortality.

In short, you can choose to be quite transhuman at this very moment, but you are probably too worried about looking uncool to really let yourself go. I could even write a novel about it, but it would no longer be science fiction.

 

By Sean McMullen

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