If humans survive for a million years, this is what the world might look like
Most species are transient. They die out, branch into new species, or change over time due to random mutations and environmental shifts. A typical mammal species can be expected to exist for a million years. modern people, Homo sapiens, has been around for about 300,000 years. So what will happen if we make it to a million years?
Science fiction writer HG Wells was the first to realize that humans could evolve into something very alien. In his 1883 essay, “The Man of the Year Million,” he proposed what has now become a cliche: big-brained, small-bodied creatures. Later he speculated that humans could also split into two or more new species.
Although Wells’s evolutionary models have not stood the test of time, the three basic options he considered still hold. We can go extinct, change into various species or change.
An additional ingredient is that we have biotechnology that can significantly increase the likelihood of each of them. Foreseeable future technologies such as human enhancement (making ourselves smarter, stronger or otherwise better through drugs, microchips, genetics or other technology), brain emulation (uploading our brains to computers) or artificial intelligence may be technological forms of new species not seen in biology.
It is impossible to predict the future perfectly. It depends on fundamentally random factors: ideas and actions as well as currently unknown technological and biological boundaries. But it’s my job to explore the possibilities, and I think the most likely case is major “speciation” – when one species splits into several others.
There are many among us who want to improve the human condition—slowing and abolishing aging, improving intelligence and mood, and changing bodies—potentially leading to new species.
However, these visions leave many cold. It is plausible that even if these technologies become as cheap and ubiquitous as cell phones, some people will reject them on principle and build their self-image of “normal” people. In the long run, we should expect that the most improved humans, generation by generation (or upgrade after upgrade), will become one or more fundamentally different “posthuman” species – and a species of holdouts who declare themselves the “real humans”.
Through brain emulation, a speculative technology where one scans a brain at a cellular level and then reconstructs an equivalent neural network in a computer to create a “software intelligence”, we can go even further . This is no mere speciation, leaving the animal kingdom for the mineral, or rather, software kingdom.
There are many reasons why some might want to do this, such as increasing chances of immortality (by creating copies and backups) or easy travel through the internet or radio in space.
Software intelligence has other benefits as well. It can be very resource efficient – a virtual creature only needs energy from sunlight and some rock material to make microchips. It can also think and change on the timescales set by computation, probably millions of times faster than biological minds. It can evolve in new ways – it just needs a software update.
Yet humanity is unlikely to remain the only intelligent species on the planet. Artificial intelligence is currently advancing rapidly. Although there are deep uncertainties and disagreements about when or if it becomes conscious, artificial general intelligence (meaning that it can understand or learn any intellectual problems like a human, rather than specializing in niche tasks), will have a significant fraction of experts think it is possible within this century or earlier.
If it can happen, it probably will. At some point, we will likely have a planet where humans have been largely replaced by software intelligence or AI—or a combination of the two.
Utopia or dystopia?
Ultimately, it seems plausible that most brains will become software. Research suggests that computers will soon become much more energy efficient than they are now. Software heads also don’t need to eat or drink, which are inefficient ways to obtain energy, and they can conserve power by running slower parts of the day. This means that in the distant future we should be able to get many more artificial minds per kilogram of matter and watt of solar energy than human minds. And since they can evolve rapidly, we should expect them to change enormously from our current style of thinking.
Physical beings are at a distinct disadvantage compared to software beings, who move in the slow, strange world of matter. Yet they are self-contained, unlike the flashy software that will evaporate if their data center is disrupted.
“Natural” people can stay in traditional societies, unlike software people. It is not unlike the Amish people today, whose humble lifestyle is still made possible (and protected) by the surrounding United States. It is not a given that surrounding societies should crush small and primitive societies: we have established human rights and legal protection, and something similar can continue for normal people.
Is this a good future? A lot depends on your values. A good life can involve having meaningful relationships with other people and living sustainably in a peaceful and prosperous environment. From that perspective, foreign pronouns are unnecessary; we just need to ensure that the quiet village can function (perhaps protected by invisible automation).
Some may appreciate “the human project,” an unbroken chain from our paleolithic ancestors to our future selves, but be open to progress. They’d probably consider software people and AI too far, but they’re fine with people evolving into strange new forms.
Others will argue that what matters is freedom of self-expression and following your life goals. They may think we should explore the posthuman world widely and see what it has to offer.
Others may value happiness, thought, or other qualities possessed by different entities and want futures that maximize them. Some may be unsure and argue that we should hedge our bets by going all the way to some extent.
Here is a forecast for the year 1 million. Some people look more or less like us – but they are less numerous than they are now. Much of the surface is wilderness, which has turned into a rewilding zone, as there is much less need for agriculture and cities.
Here and there, cultural sites with vastly different ecosystems pop up, carefully preserved by robots for historical or aesthetic reasons.
Under silicon canopies in the Sahara, trillions of artificial spirits teem. The huge and hot data centers that power these minds once threatened to overheat the planet. Now most orbit the Sun and form a growing structure – a Dyson sphere – where every watt of energy powers thought, consciousness, complexity and other strange things we don’t yet have words for.
If biological humans die out, the most likely reason (besides the obvious and immediate threats) is a lack of respect, tolerance, and binding contracts with other post-human species. Maybe a reason for us to start treating our own minorities better.
This article was originally published on The conversation by Anders Sandberg at the University of Oxford. Read the original article here.