This article is the third in a series about using technology to overcome the most primal challenges to humanity: disease, aging, and death. In Part 1, we looked at the Avatar Project and the people who are actively trying to promote indefinite life extension. In Part 2, we looked at the history of the idea that “the mind is a machine.” In this conclusion we examine some of the social consequences of a society where our robot bodies put us beyond disease and aging.
Humanity’s history is a story of self-creation: the harnessing of technology not simply to control our environment, but to re-imagine what it means to be human. Chilean evolutionary biologist Humberto Maturana coined the term autopoiesis–literally “self-creation”–to describe the fundamental property of what it means to be alive. In his 1996 book Social Systems, systems theorist Niklas Luhmann talked about the social and cultural process of second-order autopoiesis: when life looks at itself, and deliberately reimagines its own being.
We changed what it means to be human when we started to use tools and control fire. We changed it again when we began to use written symbols to store human knowledge outside our biological brains, on the artificial substrate of stone tablets and sheets of papyrus. We have augmented our our sight with eyeglasses, telescopes and microscopes. We have been using technology to reimagine what it means to be human for tens of thousands of years.
That process continues today. So far, this series has talked about some of the newest technologies and the history behind the science that will lead us to take the next great step in our own directed evolution: re-creating our human selves in completely artificial bodies.
That step is troubling for some. Many debate the ethics, philosophy and morality of uploading our minds to machines or living in mechanical bodies. But so long as there are human beings who are curious enough to push the boundaries of what it means to be human, technology will continue to advance. As Jeff Goldblum’s character said in Jurassic Park: “Life finds a way.”
But that doesn’t mean that it should advance blindly. What would be the implications of shedding our biological casings for technologically-based consciousness? Are there precautions we need to take, to ensure that we don’t endanger ourselves or the planet?