Step into the realm of science fiction today. How do you think will it go when we finally make first contact with intelligent life?
We’ve spent a lot of time trying to get in touch. Nearly a century. But very little thought has been given to what we’ll actually say. Certainly there have been broadcasts – transmissions that show how many limbs we have, or what our favourite mathematical equations are – but these might not be particularly comprehensible to extraterrestrial life. After all, aliens won’t look or act like us: our descendants will probably have to figure out how to communicate with a multi-dimensional shade of green, or a species that exchanges information through seemingly insignificant alterations to the patterns on its skin.
To properly conduct negotiations with an alien race, we’ll probably need to become a little alien ourselves.
Transhumanism is an intellectual and social movement that aims to accomplish just that: take our race beyond the bounds of what me might consider human through the use of advanced technology and alternative philosophies. These (often hypothetical) technologies could be applied directly to humans – gene therapies that might grant immunity to many diseases and slow the process of aging, or fully functional replacement of limbs with the full range of movement and increased strength to boot – or aid us indirectly, as with fully automated manufacturing and artificial intelligence. Mind uploading – the process of transferring one’s consciousness to a computer – is another hypothetical technology that would essentially grant a human immortality and vastly increased intelligence. You would, however, live in a computer.
While many of these ideas are not yet feasible in terms of available technology (or even technology available to our great-grandchildren) they form the base of several fascinating hypotheses about the future state of affairs. Humanity looked very different a hundred years ago. It will look very different in another hundred years, even if they don’t keep the night-vision eye-drops.
The ability to think as fast as a machine could be invaluable when making contact with an alien culture that might not think like us at all. Having the faculties to perceive colours not usually visible to the human eye or use a wider variety of non-verbal communication methods would also be of great help. And these ideas are just a fraction of what might be possible with transhumanist ideas and technology.
Of course, it is incredibly foolhardy to propose the use of hypothetical technologies in situations that are as far-off as a potential first contact scenario. Especially when those hypothetical technologies are more at home in science fiction than the real world.
However, we already utilise these technologies ancestors. Automated factories and three-dimensional printers are a precursor to matter synthesisers. Augmented reality – as seen in super-shitty Google Glass format – is one of the many things we’d have to get right before whacking our brains in computers. And transhumanist technologies have the potential to radically alter our society.
We could create new forms of art and expression and explore strange and different political ideas. All-inclusive democratic anarchies enabled by neural augmentation and paintings you could only see with the right implants.
There are, of course, downsides to this immensely hopeful vision of the future. As with all emergent technologies, the distribution of brain implants and cyborg limbs is unlikely to be multilateral. It’s very likely that the rich would have them first, creating an enormous class divide where the wealthy might live forever. There is also great potential for transhumanist discrimination; the baseline human could eventually be perceived as an imperfect form, with unaugmented individuals being discriminated against for how they look and how they think.
There is also the existential problem. By abandoning the things that physically and mentally make us human, we might cease being human in the worst way possible. Technologies that allow us to act like a homogeneous entity would almost certainly push us to become one: a distributed intelligence that thinks and never feels.
But at the same time, somebody has to talk to the hyper-intelligent cloud.