The Caterpillar and the Butterfly: The Debiologization of Humanity

Aliens, in science fiction, no matter how weird, are usually basically like us in two fundamental respects: biological individuals.

That’s probably wrong.

Consider: our civilization is only a few thousand years old; we are far from interstellar travel. Any other civilization able to come here would have to be far older.

Our technological era is only centuries old; serious scientific technology even younger. But already we are on the cusp of profoundly altering human life. Ray Kurzweil talks about a coming “singularity,” a dividing point – before, life was one thing; after, something else entirely. He foresees this in a matter of decades.

Already, for many people, their iPhones and Droids and iWhatsises are becoming veritable extensions of themselves, virtually as though adding new organs to their original endowments. Miguel Nicolelis, in the latest Scientfic American, writes of advancements in brain control of machines. The prime example is giving mobility to paralyzed limbs; but why stop at remediating deficits? Why not enhancements?

Meantime, too, artificial intelligence is advancing. Yes, I know, the early promise has not been realized, a thinking machine turns out to be wickedly more complicated than previously realized. Yet still computers become smarter every day. Now they can learn. IBM’s Deep Blue beat the world champion at chess; more recently a computer beat Ken Jennings at Jeopardy!

We don’t yet fully understand consciousness; but it’s not magical or supernatural. It’s perhaps best thought of as an “emergent property” of the complex neural network constituting a human brain. There is no reason in principle why an artificial system of comparable complexity could not develop consciousness.

Do you see where it’s all going? Humans becoming more computerized/mechanized; computers and machines becoming more humanlike. Convergence is inevitable.

Some express fear that we’ll someday be subjugated or supplanted by a race of super-intelligent machines. I believe, instead, that purely biological humanity will be superseded by a different kind of creature, representing a merger of the biological with the artificial. (“Artificial” merely meaning non-biological.) Or perhaps the biological will be dispensed with completely.

Will that be bad? No. If those computerized/mechanized entities have thoughts and feelings – a sense of self – like we do – then they’d still be what I’d call “human” in the ways that truly matter. Quite possibly in all those respects they’d actually be enhanced compared to us meager, frail biological things. It will be a natural evolution of humanity.

Furthermore, we already see the beginnings of not only a merger between biology and technology, but between the individual and the collective. Now, you won’t find a stronger advocate of the individual versus the collective than me; I don’t believe in society bending individuals to its will. But this is different. A key impetus of modern technological life is that people thirst for connectivity with other people. This can only escalate as technology facilitates such human interconnection ever more powerfully.

And, as we move toward becoming the cyberbeings foreseen above, no doubt the interconnectedness among individuals will grow; and indeed, individual consciousness will evolve toward merged consciousness.

This is the inevitable trajectory for any intelligent, technological civilization. If we ever do encounter some alien visitors, we won’t likely meet biological individuals, but rather some sort of collective consciousness which had long since evolved beyond its biological antecedents.

Just like we ourselves will do.

Just like a butterfly leaving behind its caterpillar antecedents — emerging as something very different and, arguably, far finer.


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3 Responses to “The Caterpillar and the Butterfly: The Debiologization of Humanity”

  1. Lee Says:

    Although I have seen hardly any episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I know that they have a species of mixed biology and cybernetics that operates with a collective consciousness called the Borg. Perhaps it is only coincidence, but this race is made out to be, pretty much, the ultimate evil in that TV series. I wonder whether we humans (or at least many western/American humans?) have negative “gut reactions” to both the biology-cybernetic hybrid and the collective consciousness.

    FSR RESPONSE: Yes, Star Trek’s “The Borg” was somewhat like that — though an escapee, “Seven of Nine,” seemed to retain a very high degree of biologicality, if you know what I mean, wink wink. And, yes, we do have a “gut reaction” of hostility toward the idea of replacing biological elements of ourselves with non-biological ones. (See my prior posting!) Indeed, my point in writing the later one, in part, was to say such evolution would NOT be a bad thing.

  2. Tim Tyler Says:

    Biology is “the study of life” – so you are saying our descendants won’t be alive?!? How does that make any sense? I think you need to find another word for what you are talking about.

    FSR REPLY: What does “alive” mean? It’s actually a very difficult concept to pin down. I think if there are mechanical intelligences that have consciousness, they would be “alive” in the most important sense, though not part of BIOLOGICAL life as we have grown familiar with it.

  3. Tim Tyler Says:

    If future systems are alive, then they are surely part of the object of study of biology. I think future systems will be alive. You think future systems will be alive. What is it with the “non-biological?” Non-biological refers to rocks and rain – not to complex adaptive systems with heritable information!

    If you think computers are “non-biological”, I encourage you to review that classification. Computers are part of the subject matter of biology – as much as snail shells and fingernails are.

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