Thursday, January 28, 2021


In recent years, a new paradigm for thinking about the future of humanity has begun to take shape among some of the leading computer scientists, neuroscientists, nanotechnologists and researchers at the forefront of technological development. The new paradigm rejects a crucial assumption that is implicit in both traditional futurology and in practically the totality of current political thought. This is the assumption that the "human condition" is at the root a constant. Current processes can be refined; wealth can be increased and redistributed; tools can be developed and refined; culture can change, sometimes drastically; but human nature itself is not at stake.

This assumption is no longer true. You could say that was never true. Innovations such as speech, written language, printing, engines, modern medicine and computers have had a profound impact not only on how people live their lives, but on who and what they are. Compared to what could happen in the coming decades, these changes may have been slow and even relatively docile. But keep in mind that even a single additional innovation as important as any of the above would be enough to invalidate orthodox projections of the future of our world. "Transhumanism" has earned money as the name of a new way of thinking that defies the premise that the human condition is and will remain essentially unchanged. Clearing that mental block allows you to see a dazzling landscape of radical possibilities, ranging from unlimited happiness to the extinction of intelligent life. In general, the future by the lights present looks very rare, but perhaps very wonderful, indeed.

Some of the possibilities you will no doubt hear discussed in the coming years are quite extreme and sound like science fiction. Consider the following:

Super intelligent machines. Superintelligence means any form of artificial intelligence, perhaps inspired by a better understanding of computational architectures and learning algorithms used by human brains, that is capable of outperforming the best human brains in virtually every discipline, including scientific creativity, practical wisdom and social skills. Several commentators have argued that both the hardware and software required for superintelligence could be developed in a few decades.

Lifelong emotional well-being through recalibration of pleasure centers. Even today, mild variants of sustainable euphoria are possible for a minority of people who respond especially well to clinical mood brighteners ("antidepressants"). Pharmaceuticals currently in development promise to give an increasing number of "normal" people the option of drastically reducing the incidence of negative emotions in their lives. In some cases, the adverse side effects of new agents are negligible. While street drugs generally wreak havoc on the neurochemistry of the brain, producing an emotional brief followed by a collapse, modern clinical drugs can target a neurotransmitter or subtype of a given receptor with high specificity, thus avoiding any negative effect on the cognitive faculties of the subject - (s) will not feel "drugged" - and allows a constant and indefinitely sustainable elevation of the state David Pearce defends and predicts a postDarwinian in which all aversive experience will be replaced by gradients of pleasure beyond the limits of normal human experience. As mood whiteners and cleaner and safer genetic therapies become available, "paradise engineering" can become a viable possibility." high" 

Personality pills. Drugs and gene therapy will produce much more than a superficial one-dimensional pleasure. They can also modify personality. They can help overcome shyness, eliminate jealousy, increase creativity, and improve empathy and emotional depth. Think of all the preaching, fasting, and self-discipline that people have subjected themselves to over the centuries in attempts to ennoble their character. In short it may be possible to achieve the same goals much more thoroughly by swallowing a daily cocktail pill.

Spatial colonization. Today, space colonization is technologically feasible but prohibitively expensive. As costs decrease, it will be economically and politically possible to begin colonizing space. What needs to be taken into account is that once a single self-sustaining colony has been established, capable of sending its own colonisation probes, an exponentially self-replicating process has been set in motion that is capable, with no other input from planet Earth, Of course, this sequence of events will take a long time on a human time scale. But it is interesting to note how close we are to being able to initiate a chain of events that will have consequences as momentous as filling the observable universe with our descendants.

(Original version appeared in 1998, here slightly revised and with an epilogue added in 2001)

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