Southern Views

Now seems as good a time as any to address the issue of biomechanical evolution. This could be, I will admit, because there is no good time to address biomechanical evolution. So, now will do as well as any other moment you could pick.

(Artwork by Paddy Whitferd)

Why, you may ask, address this issue at all, regardless of the time? I cannot give you a very good answer to that question. What I can tell you is a lot of people who are either a) very smart, b) have too much time on their hands, c) are really just dumb folk in possession of a good vocabulary or d) some combination of two or more of these are addressing it. Indeed, there are an abundance of resources, fiscal and human and other resources being expended on some facet of this very issue. This has been going on for some time and it seems to be accelerating.

Now I am not saying there are people out there working under the aegis of the Institute for Building a Better Human or some such as that. Nope, it is just that the pieces and parts required to pull this off are coming into focus and are doing so rapidly.

Recently, a great deal of work has been done to give computers the ability to sense things. Computers have been developed that have a limited sense of smell. Others are being developed with a fairly acute sense of sight and the intelligence to recognize and identify what is being seen. There is work afoot to see if computers can be made to taste. I have no word on any effort to build a computer that can feel though that may already be underway.

Along with all this sensory work, engineers are building increasingly sophisticated arms and legs and such that can function in much the same manner as a human limb of the same category. Recently, word came from Japan that their engineers have developed a complete “body suit” that will allow severely handicapped people, paraplegics, for instance, to walk and run.

Theoretically, at least, computer scientist and neural engineers believe it will soon be possible, soon being twenty to thirty year hence, to have an intelligent machine in which it may prove possible to embed the consciousness of one or more human beings. By consciousness is meant memory, intelligence, logic, reason, the whole kit and caboodle.

If this is so, then it becomes possible, within the lifetime of most people alive today, to build a hybrid man/machine.

This possibility begs the question, why would anyone want to do that? As an answer there is, of course, always the Sir Edmund Hillary postulate, “because it is there.” There will always be folk who pursue a thing because it is believed to be possible. The Hillary Postulate has always been a favorite explanation of mine to explain the inexplicable behavior of myself, and others.

While I still believe there is some validity to that position, for, as you know, I am rarely completely wrong, I have come to believe there may be another, more primal imperative driving some in this direction.

You should settle in. Find a comfortable position for I cannot bring you to a full appreciation of this new revelation by a direct means. In order for you to receive the full import of the matter, dare I say the thrill of it, you must come at it as I did. This approach may strike you as meandering, mental jaunting but you are a smart guy and will realize the benefit in the end.

Let’s start with something we know.

MATTERS OF LIFE AND DEATH

As you are, no doubt, aware, the human body is not a single entity. Each and every one of us is composed of trillions upon trillions of single cell, individual units that have some cooperative and/or specialized function. Not only that, our bodies are each host to trillions of other biological creatures to whom each of us is home.

The cooperative and specialized cells of which we are comprised must exist within a certain individual human or they will expire. They are so specialized that, even though they reproduce, live and die everyday in their billions, not one of them could survive for long if the combined organism to which they belong dies. For instance, every second of everyday you and I have millions of brain cells being born and dying all with little or no inconvenience to ourselves. It is as if your brain is a densely populated colony of Arkansas hillbillies with individuals breeding, birthing, living and dying pretty much outside anyone’s notice.

On the other hand, many of the trillions and trillions of creatures occupying various portions of real estate on your person could, if one was so inclined, live just as well, and as happily, on a similar portion of real estate on my august person. Creatures such as eight legged Demodex mites would be as content, presumably, to nestle down in the follicles of my eyelashes as he or she would be in yours.

I do not know whether it is possible for a Domedex mite to transport himself from your eyelash follicles to mine and, if it is possible, how difficult and probable such a journey would be for the little fellow. Nor do I know if, such a journey being theoretically possible, it would require the kind of close physical proximity between your follicles and my own so as to outrage societal norms and personal inclinations. Never the less, the fact remains that were such transport a possibility, and that possibility seized by one or more Demodex mites, from your, no doubt, pure bred follicles to my ethnically mixed follicles, that mite could live well and comfortably once the trip was made.

There are, of course, other, less symbiotic species of multi-celled and single cell organisms that can also live well and happy on or inside the body of almost any human based habitat. Bed bugs, lice, of both the head and the pubis variety, fleas, etc., can and do come and go betwixt and between humans whenever they feel like it and the “roads” are open. Likewise, these parasitic animals are emulated in this ease of transport between human hosts by smaller multi cell organisms and single cell one as well.  Papillomavirus are examples of such little devils.

To one degree or another, all these various, discrete living entities, everything from the specialized single cell to the most advanced flea and all in between, require that human body upon which they live to be “alive” in the classical sense. Even if the being in question happens to be a flea capable to jumping form the dying body to the closest available human mourner, all these cells and fellow travelers have to have a human body to host their existence.

Something else we know is that when the human body dies, it does not do so all at once. Some single specialized cells get the “memo” later than others and go along for a short but measurable period of time as if nothing was wrong. That is also true for all the fellow travelers. While it is true that many species of fellow travelers know almost immediately from subtle changes in temperature, chemistry, odor or telepathy, who knows how, that the body has left the community of the quick and taken its place among the dead, other fellow travelers do not. Whenever the information gets through, the effected population begins immediate preparations to migrate, evolve, panic, have one last roll in the hay, whatever they are programmed to do. For some, like our opportunistic flea at the wake, the memo arrives in time, for the vast majority of fellow traveler species it does not and, when the body loses its ability to sustain that form of parasitic or symbiotic life, the jig is up.

WTF

With this lark as preamble, lets assume that due to global warming and mankind’s inability to restrain our various behaviors that cause and/or exacerbate it, the earth is dying. By dying I do not mean it is ceasing to exist. Rather, I mean dying in the human centric sense of the term. That is, earth is losing its ability to sustain carbon based life forms and may soon be completely incapable of sustaining any such life form, human or other wise.

Science fiction writers have mined a rich load of literary metal telling of heroic, fictional groups of enlightened people making preparations for transport to another world, one not yet killed by human science and commerce. Regardless of the cause of death of the planet, individuals have been portrayed as making heroic efforts to colonize other planets and start over.

While there is a lot of attraction to this approach of migration from a dying planet to another as hospitable, or at least survivable, thoughtful persons will be forgiven if they think time has run out on that option.

If one believes that global warming is happening, for whatever reason, one potential outcome for it may be the death of the planet Earth as defined above. Another outcome may be a simple die off of species such as in the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event. During the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event, according to some scientists, at least one half of all plant and animal species present on Earth at the time the extinction began  became extinct by the time it ended. The T/J event lasted a mere 10,000 years or so. A similar event, it is thought by some, resulting from global warming is likely to be a greatly accelerated extinction event, extinguishing more species at a much faster rate. This will give survivor species less time to adjust and will give new species rising to fill the various voids left behind less time to do so. Whether this shorter time period is of any importance to the final equilibrium to emerge is problematic. Ten minutes and 10,000 years may prove to be pretty much “six of one and half a dozen of the other” when it comes to evolutionary time frames. Never the less, humans have no guarantee we will make the cut and come out on the other side of the extinction event.

Likewise, scientists have formed a near unanimous opinion, among the rational cohort of their population, that human induced or accelerated global warming is happening, happening faster than originally believed and may continue to accelerate at an ever increasing rate. In short, scientists no longer have any unanimous or near unanimous opinion about what is happening next or how soon “next” is. What is next after “next” is also a complete unknown.

No one really believes there is any consensus building around a political/social/economic policy to do the things necessary to avoid our fate, whatever it may be. Even if there was such a consensus of will, there is no consensus on what to do that will work.

Combining a lack of political will and an on real agenda for effective change, the accelerated impacts of global warming don’t leave a lot of time, maybe less than a century before bad stuff begins in earnest. No one really believes, given the lack of another planet we could colonize and the physical means to transport a breedable population to that place, there is time to do so before whatever global warming is going to do happens.

So, we are left with engineering solutions. These come in two schools. One, my personal favorite though I freely admit it will, at best, result in a long painful period of trial and error, I like to call the higher dike school. The higher dike guys want to go around the planet and try to build protections from the effects of what we have reasonable certainty will come out of global warming. These include, rising sea levels, greater storm intensity and frequency, shifting areas of drought and tropic and monsoon rain patterns. To the extent these threats and the specific areas most vulnerable to them can be identified, there may be time to engineer a solution, higher dikes against the sea, for instance. (The higher dike program also has the additional benefit of being a major, international work program that will put millions and millions of folk to work. Even if global warming turns out to be nothing more than a modern day equivalent to worshiping Ra, the Egyptian sun God, all these public works and jobs will prove a long lasting benefit in the same way the pyramids did, back in the day.)

A second engineering solution is an evolutionary one. That is, can technology be developed rapidly enough to transfer human consciousness from an individual, or collections of individuals, into some form of bio mechanical thing/device that can survive and perpetuate itself? A growing number of scientists and neural engineers believe this may be possible, even probable and advisable. Cannot say myself, on either count, possibility or advisability.

One the one hand, religious reservations, hostilities and so forth aside, it all sounds a little creepy and, perhaps, dangerous. One the other hand, if the species is facing total extinction and this is the only likely way to beat the rap, it may be what has to happen. That is a big “if.”

All that is more or less irrelevant to the question originally asked. “Why would anyone want to download/upload his or her consciousness into a bio mechanical device? Evolutionary survival is a pretty good reason, if one believes that is necessary. Immortality, at least the desire for it, is another potential reason. Though why anyone would believe for a second some machine made by men would achieve immortality I don’t know.

An answer may lie in the very first human consciousness to be embedded in the new man/machine. If replication and improvement were built into the device’s intelligence, a form of an instinct for survival, so that the device(s) were constantly making the small incremental improvements required by best manufacturing and design standards it might work. This, of course is the “consciousness of W. Edwards Deming, the American statistician of last century. Ignored by his native land, he was almost a God to the post war Japanese. As it is the Japanese who will be building this thing, if anybody does, Deming, though dead for eighteen years, will be the first on board.

So, assume, for the moment, we carry within us the seeds of our own destruction. Assume we are merrily running our societies and economies in such a way as to extinguish ourselves. Assume you know that for a fact, would you chose to perpetuate your consciousness, the essence of that which is you, by purposely evolving into a man/machine?

Would you do so knowing, even if Deming insures long-term viability, that none of us, even the ones whose consciousness is replicated for the new “life” forms to be created, will be around to find out if it worked? After all, if the new man/machine life form is good enough to make the incremental improvements required for the “species” to carry on into something akin to immortality, the human contributors’ consciousness might still be around, but contributors won’t be.

One thing is for sure. The fleas and the lice will still be with you. I don’t know how but you can count on it.

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Mike Copeland

Mike Copeland

I am old enough to know better. I have a B. A. from Birmingham Southern College and a Master's in City Planning from Georgia Tech. I have worked in SC State government for over a decade leaving as the Deputy Executive Director of the State Budget and Control Board, the state's administrative agency. I have owned the Fontaine Company since 1984 and am the managing member of viscerality.com.llc a management, marketing and consulting company.

I am the author of several novels, some of which you may buy and read if you are of a mind to do so.