From changing beauty norms to designer babies to superhuman cyborgs, this final chapter in our Future of Human Evolution series will discuss how human evolution could potentially end. Get your bowl of popcorn ready.
It was all a VR dream
2016 is a breakout year for virtual reality (VR). Powerhouse companies like Facebook, Sony, and Google plan to release VR headsets that will bring realistic and user-friendly virtual worlds to the masses. This represents the start of an entirely new mass market medium, one that will attract thousands of software and hardware developers to build upon. In fact, by the early 2020s, VR apps could begin to generate more downloads than traditional mobile apps.
(If you’re wondering what all this has to do with human evolution, please be patient.)
At a basic level, VR is the use of technology to digitally create an immersive and convincing audiovisual illusion of reality. The goal is to replace the real world with a realistic virtual world. And when it comes to the 2016 VR headset models (Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Sony’s Project Morpheus), they're the real deal; they produce an immersive feeling that you're inside another world but without the motion sickness caused by the models that came before them.
By the late-2020s, VR tech will be mainstream. Education, employment training, business meetings, virtual tourism, gaming and entertainment, these are just a few of the many applications that cheap, user-friendly, and realistic VR can and will disrupt. But before we reveal the connection between VR and human evolution, there are a few other new technologies you'll need to know about.
By the mid-2040s, another technology will slowly enter the mainstream: Brain-Computer Interface (BCI).
Covered in our Future of Computers series, BCI involves using an implant or a brain-scanning device that monitors your brainwaves and associates them with language/commands to control anything that's run on a computer. That's right, BCI will let you control machines and computers simply through your thoughts.
In fact, you might not have realized it, but the beginnings of BCI have already begun. Amputees are now testing robotic limbs controlled directly by the mind, instead of through sensors attached to the wearer’s stump. Likewise, people with severe disabilities (such as quadriplegics) are now using BCI to steer their motorized wheelchairs and manipulate robotic arms. But helping amputees and persons with disabilities lead more independent lives isn’t the extent of what BCI will be capable of.
Experiments into BCI reveal applications relating to controlling physical things, controlling and communicating with animals, writing and sending a text using thoughts, sharing your thoughts with another person (i.e. simulated telepathy), and even the recording of dreams and memories. Overall, BCI researchers are working to translate thought into data, so as to make human thoughts and data interchangeable.
Why BCI is important in the context of evolution is because it wouldn’t take much to go from reading minds to making a full digital backup of your brain (also known as Whole Brain Emulation, WBE). A reliable version of this technology will become available by the mid-2050s.
So far, we've covered VR, BCI, and WBE. Now it's time to combine these acronyms in a way that won't let you down.
Sharing thoughts, sharing emotions, sharing dreams
Sampling from our Future of the Internet series, the following is a bullet list overview of how VR and BCI will merge to form a new environment that could redirect human evolution.
- At first, BCI headsets will only be affordable to the few, a novelty of the rich and well-connected who will actively promote it on their social media, acting as early adopters and influencers spreading its value to the masses.
- In time, BCI headsets become affordable to the general public, likely becoming a holiday season must-buy gadget.
- The BCI headset will feel very much like the VR headset everyone (by then) has grown accustomed to. Early models will allow wearers of BCI to communicate with each other telepathically, to connect with each other in a deeper way, regardless of any language barriers. These early models will also be able to record thoughts, memories, dreams, and eventually even complex emotions.
- Web traffic will explode as people begin sharing their thoughts, memories, dreams, and emotions between family, friends, and lovers.
- Over time, BCI becomes a new communication medium that in some ways improves upon or replaces traditional speech (similar to the rise of emoticons today). Avid BCI users (likely the youngest generation of the time) will begin replacing traditional speech by sharing memories, emotion-laden images, and thought constructed images and metaphors. (Basically, imagine instead of saying the words "I love you," you can deliver that message by sharing your emotion, mixed with images that represent your love.) This represents a deeper, potentially more accurate, and far more authentic form of communication when compared to the speech and words we've depended upon for millennia.
- Obviously, the entrepreneurs of the day will capitalize on this communication revolution.
- The software entrepreneurs will produce new social media and blogging platforms that specialize in sharing thoughts, memories, dreams, and emotions to an endless variety of niches. They will create new broadcasting mediums where entertainment and news are shared directly into a willing user's mind, as well as advertising services that target ads based on your current thoughts and emotions. Thought powered authentication, file sharing, web interface, and so much more will blossom around the basic tech behind BCI.
- Meanwhile, the hardware entrepreneurs will produce BCI enabled products and living spaces so that the physical world follows a BCI user’s commands.
- Bringing these two groups together will be the entrepreneurs who specialize in VR. By merging BCI with VR, BCI users will be able to construct their own virtual worlds at will. Similar to the movie Inception, where you wake up in your dream and find that you can bend reality and do whatever you want. Combining BCI and VR will allow people to gain greater ownership over the virtual experiences they inhabit by creating realistic worlds generated from a combination of their memories, thoughts, and imagination.
- As more and more people begin using BCI and VR to communicate more deeply and create ever more elaborate virtual worlds, it won’t be long before new Internet protocols arise to merge the Internet with VR.
- Not long after, massive VR worlds will be designed to accommodate the virtual lives of millions, and eventually billions, online. For our purposes, we'll call this new reality, the Metaverse. (If you prefer to call these worlds the Matrix, that’s perfectly fine as well.)
- Over time, advances in BCI and VR will be able to mimic and replace your natural senses, making metaverse users unable to differentiate their online world from the real world (assuming they decide to inhabit a VR world that perfectly simulates the real world, e.g. handy for those who can't afford to travel to the real Paris, or prefer to visit the Paris of the 1960s.) Overall, this level of realism will only add to the Metaverse's future addictive nature.
- People will begin spending as much time in the Metaverse, as they do sleeping. And why wouldn't they? This virtual realm will be where you access most of your entertainment and interact with your friends and family, especially those who live far from you. If you work or go to school remotely, your time in the Metaverse to could grow to 10-12 hours a day.
I want to emphasize that last point because that will be the tipping point to all of this.
Legal recognition of life online
Given the inordinate amount of time a large percentage of the public will spend inside this Metaverse, governments will be pushed to recognize and (to an extent) regulate people's lives inside the Metaverse. All the legal rights and protections, and some of the restrictions, people expect in the real world will become reflected and enforced inside the Metaverse.
For example, bringing WBE back into the discussion, say you're 64, and your insurance company covers you to get a brain-backup. Then when you're 65, you get into an accident that causes you brain damage and severe memory loss. Future medical innovations may be able to heal your brain, but they won't recover your memories. That's when doctors access your brain-backup to load your brain with your missing long-term memories. This backup would not only be your property, but also a legal version of yourself, with all the same rights and protections, in the event of an accident.
Likewise, say you're a victim of an accident that this time puts you into a coma or vegetative state. Luckily, you backed up your mind before the accident. While your body recovers, your mind can still engage with your family and even work remotely from within the Metaverse. When the body recovers and the doctors are ready to wake you from your coma, the mind-backup can transfer the new memories it created into your newly healed body. And here too, your active consciousness, as it exists in the Metaverse, will become the legal version of yourself, with all the same rights and protections, in the event of an accident.
However, using this train of thought, what would happen to this accident victim if his or her body never recovers? What if the body dies while the mind is very much active and interacting with the world through the Metaverse?
Mass migration into the online ether
By the tail end of the century, between 2090 to 2110, a significant percentage of the world population will register at specialized hibernation centers, where they’ll pay to live in a Matrix-style pod that cares for their body’s physical needs for extended periods—weeks, months, eventually years, whatever’s legal at the time—so that they can reside in this metaverse 24/7. This may sound extreme, but extended stays in the metaverse could make economic sense, especially for those who decide to delay or reject traditional parenthood.
By living, working, and sleeping in the Metaverse, you can avoid the traditional living costs of rent, utilities, transportation, food, etc., and instead only pay to rent your time in a tiny hibernation pod. And on a societal level, hibernation of large chunks of the population could reduce strains on the housing, energy, food, and transportation sectors—especially should the world population grow to nearly 10 billion by 2060.
Decades after this kind of permanent residence in the Metaverse becomes ‘normal,' the debate will arise about what to do with people's bodies. If a person's body dies of old age while their mind remains perfectly active and engaged with the Metaverse community, should their consciousness be erased? If a person decides to remain in the Metaverse for the rest of their life, is there a reason to continue to spend societal resources maintaining the organic body in the physical world?
The answer to both these questions will be: no.
Humans as beings of thought and energy
- Human average life expectancy will extend well past 100 before 2060.
- Biological amortality (living agelessly but still able to die from violence or injury) becomes possible after 2080.
- After WBE becomes possible by 2060, the death of the mind will become optional.
- Uploading a bodiless mind into a robot or human clone body (Battlestar Galactica resurrection-style) makes immortality possible for the first time by 2090.
- A person's mortality eventually becomes dependent on their mental fitness, more so than their physical health.
As a percentage of humanity uploads their minds full-time into the Metaverse, then permanently after their body's die, this will cause a gradual chain of events.
- The living will wish to remain in contact with those physically deceased persons whom they cared about through using the Metaverse.
- This continued interaction with the physically deceased will lead to a general comfort with the concept of a digital life after a physical death.
- This digital afterlife will then become normalized into yet another stage of a person's life, thereby leading to a gradual increase in the permanent, Metaverse human population.
- Inversely, the human body gradually becomes devalued, as the definition of life will shift to emphasize consciousness over the basic functioning of an organic body.
- Due to this redefinition, and especially for those who lost loved ones early, some people will be motivated—and will have the legal right—to terminate their human bodies at any time to permanently join the Metaverse.
- This right to end one's physical life will likely be restricted until after a person reaches a predefined age of physical maturity. Many will likely ritualize this process by a ceremony governed by a future techno-religion.
- Future governments will support this mass migration into the Metaverse for a number of reasons. First, this migration is a non-coercive means of population control. Future politicians will also be avid Metaverse users. And real-world funding and maintenance of the International Metaverse Network will be protected by a permanently growing Metaverse electorate whose voting rights will remain protected even after their physical death.
This mass migration will continue to well past 2200 when the majority of the world population will exist as beings of thought and energy within the International Metaverse Network. This digital world will become as rich and diverse as the collective imaginations of the billions of humans who interact within it.
(On a cautionary note, while humans may direct this Metaverse, it's complexity will require it to be managed by one or more artificial intelligences. The success of this digital world depends on our relationship with these new artificial entities. But we'll cover that in our Future of Artificial Intelligence series.)
But the question remains, what will happen to those humans who opt out of the Metaverse existence?
The human species branches out
For a multitude of cultural, ideological and religious reasons, a sizeable minority of humanity will decide not to participate with the International Metaverse initiative. Instead, they will continue with the accelerated evolution practices described in earlier chapters, such as creating designer babies and augmenting their bodies with superhuman abilities.
Over time, this will lead to a population of human beings that have peaked physically and who have fully adapted to the Earth's future environment. Much of this population will choose to live humble lives of leisure, most in large-scale arcologies, with the rest in isolated townships. Many of these outcasts will opt to recapture the adventurer/explorer spark of humanity's ancestors by embarking on interplanetary and interstellar travel. For this latter group, physical evolution may yet see new frontiers.
We become Martians
Briefly pulling from our Future of Space series, we also feel it’s important to mention that humanity’s future adventures in space will also play a role in our future evolution.
Something that's not often mentioned by NASA or accurately presented in most sci-fi shows is that different planets have different levels of gravity in comparison to the Earth. For example, the moon's gravity is about 17 percent of Earth gravity—that's why the original moon landing featured footage of astronauts bouncing around on the moon's surface. Likewise, gravity on Mars is about 38 percent of Earth's gravity; that means that while future astronauts on the first visit to Mars won't be bouncing around, they will feel considerably lighter.
‘Why does this all matter?’ you ask.
It matters because human physiology has evolved to the Earth's gravity. As experienced by astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS), extended exposure to low or no gravity environments leads to an increased rate of bone and muscle decay, similar to those suffering from osteoporosis.
This means that extended missions, then bases, then colonies on the moon or Mars will force these future space frontiers-people to either become CrossFit exercise maniacs or steroid junkies to prevent the long-term damage low gravity exposure will have on their bodies. However, by the time space colonies become a serious possibility, we'll also have a third option: genetically engineering a new breed of human with a physiology tailored to the gravity of the planets they are born into.
Should this happen, we will see the creation of an entirely new species of human within the next 1-200 years. To put this in perspective, it would take nature many thousands of years to evolve a new species from a common genus.
So the next time you listen to space exploration advocates talk about guaranteeing the survival of the human race by colonizing other worlds, remember that they aren’t being overly specific about what kind of human race is being guaranteed survival.
(Oh, and we didn’t mention the extreme radiation astronauts will be exposed to during extended missions in space and on Mars. Eesh.)
Our evolutionary cul de sac?
Since the earliest days of evolution, life has sought out ever greater vehicles to protect and pass along its genetic information to successive generations.
To illustrate this point, consider this surprisingly novel train of thought from Macquarie University researchers: At the dawn of evolution, RNA was consumed by DNA. DNA was consumed by individual cells. Cells were consumed by complex, multi-celled organisms. These organisms were consumed by ever more complex plant and animal life. Eventually, those animals that evolved a nervous system were able to control and consume those that didn't. And the animal that evolved the most complex nervous system of all, humans, used their unique language as a tool to indirectly pass genetic information from one generation to the next, a tool that also allowed them to quickly dominate the food chain.
However, with the rise of the Internet, we're seeing the early early days of a global nervous system, one that shares information effortlessly and in bulk. It's a nervous system that people today are already becoming ever more dependent on with each passing year. And as we read above, it's a nervous system that will eventually consume us entirely as we freely merge our consciousness into the Metaverse.
Those that opt out of this Metaverse existence doom their offspring into an evolutionary cul de sac, whereas those that merge with it risk losing themselves inside it. Whether you see this as a depressing no win destiny for mankind or a triumph of human ingenuity towards a man-made techno-heaven/afterlife depends largely on your point of view.
Luckily, this entire scenario is two to three centuries out, so I’m guessing you’ll have more than enough time to decide for yourself.