Nick Fox-Gieg

Assuming human beings can survive for the next thousand years, which problem do you think we’ll solve first: how to travel faster than light, or how to download a brain into a new body? Nothing like a real warp drive exists in our world today, but we’ve already got the ability—crude and limited, sure—to directly access the information stored in our brains. And an information system exists by virtue of its arrangement, nothing more; it’s independent of any physical matter. (It’s said you could build a working computer out of kitchen-sink water spigots, if you had a continent’s worth of space to build it in.)

Think of the Agricultural Revolution as a package of technologies that alter our environment: we started by collecting a set of wild plants and animals with agendas of their own, then modified them over some ten thousand years into useful tools. Similarly, the Industrial Revolution is a package of technologies that alter our bodies, amplifying our natural strength, speed, senses, and memory. Yet unlike agriculture, these new tools are inherently dangerous to the aristocracies that came to dominate the previous revolution—grabbing surplus food, they could spend a lifetime training as professional warriors. Now, however, that same lethal power can be made widely accessible in prepackaged forms, like crossbows and nuclear bombs.

It’s a problem we need to solve quickly, because we ask the impossible of the Earth. Not only do we want air, water, soil, and sunlight to keep us alive—we want to be kept in the manner to which we’re accustomed, as complex symbol manipulators, as producers of culture. At some point in our evolutionary past, we came to depend on this exchange of culture so very much that we came, by and large, to prefer cultural survival to genetic survival. It’s a fragile niche as far as natural selection is concerned—a temporary solution, to be swept aside by the next planetary catastrophe. And despite our early successes in building small spacegoing habitats for humans, we can likely only travel far from earth not modifying our environment, but by modifying ourselves.

As futuristic as mind-uploading sounds, there’s evidence suggesting that we’ve been doing something like it all along. All this symbol exchange may transfer pieces of our conscious minds between bodies, surely as copying a file between computers. When I express a thought to you in words, and you understand the words and proceed to think of that thought, it seems to be that a physical structure is built in your brain. This structure is a perfect copy of the original, in my head. The idea that our dead loved ones live on in our memory turns out to be, in a limited sense, literally true. It might not be as cinematic as flying through space in a kind of giant boat, but this glorious, relentless copying might be the motor that drives a future human diaspora.

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