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Hang on.... this is gonna be one FREAKIN' wild ride !

When we will be like the gods


Saturday, January 1, 2000

The next millennium will make the one just ending seem uneventful.

If I tried, for some reason, to write a science fiction story set in the year 3000, the proof I had succeeded would be that you'd find my characters incomprehensible -- fundamentally beyond your understanding, let alone your empathy. You might well refuse to agree they were human beings. I might even join you.

For me, man is the animal that copes with problems, and by our standards people in the year 3000 will have none. At least, none we'd recognize, though they'll probably be griping about something.

Dozens of breakthrough technologies, the kind that change the world -- the kind that rarely happened a millennium ago, seldom happened a century ago, and have come along five or six times in your own lifetime -- are all due to converge within the next 50 years or so. Stunning advances in genetics, biochemistry, neurochemistry, medicine, psychology, physics, cybernetics, agriculture, energy-production, engineering and other fields should all arrive roughly simultaneously -- and heterodyne.

This cascade of change will produce what my colleague Vernor Vinge calls a "technological singularity" -- a black hole in future history. Just past it, nothing specific can be safely predicted. But if that interregnum of chaos doesn't destroy the race altogether, it will change it utterly.

The problem we face in comprehending a person from the year 3000 is not like that of a learned man from the year 1000 contemplating us today, trying to make sense of acid rain, automobiles, moonwalks, Hiroshima, human rights, women's rights, TV, the Internet and an average life span three times what he considers normal. It's much worse than that.

That fellow would certainly find our world confusing, often baffling -- but he'd recognize its inhabitants as essentially human, albeit odd. (What would surprise him most, I think, is how blasť we are about all our miracles.) And he might, with enough explanation, come to find at least some of our problems almost as poignant as his own.

But someone from 3000 -- well, let's hop in my time machine. I've selected an absolutely typical person of that era, named Morgan . . . and once I've introduced you, I think you'll see what I mean.

For a start, there's no simple answer to your very first question, "Is Morgan male or female?" Being of sound mental health, s/he has been both, for varying periods at various times in his/her life . . . and has been several other things in between. (Some of these things I cannot describe to you; others I will not.) Morgan may honestly not even remember what plumbing s/he began with. After all, s/he has been alive, in one form or another, for almost 900 years.

To her, of course (let's arbitrarily solve my pronoun problem thus), it seems longer. Much longer. At various times, for varying reasons, Morgan has been quickened -- had herself uploaded, and therefore lived at computer speed, experiencing quadrillions of perceptions in each passing second.

She happens to be quickened just now: Long before you can get out the first syllable of "Hello," she has already scanned and integrated every byte of information about you to be found online, correlated that with your present appearance, correctly predicted all likely variants of the forthcoming conversation, prepared and stored her various answers so that the right ones will be played back s-l-o-w-l-y for you (by a hastily grown meat-robot) after you've asked the questions . . . and turned her attention elsewhere.

By the time you've finished your hello, Morgan has lived several centuries of subjective time. (Every so often she'll check back for a nanosecond to make sure her conversation with you is proceeding as anticipated, but you'll never notice.)

You can call her experiences "virtual," if you like . . . but they're as real to her as reading this sentence is to you. Both perceptions consist of patterned electrical impulses: What matter whether the medium is wet or dry?

During that first second or two, for example, Morgan's written two novels and a symphony, conducted indescribable business in 14 . . . well, the closest thing 3000 has to nations; call them "definable regions" . . . partied with friends thousands of kilometres away, and vacationed alone in a . . . an indescribable zone that perhaps only three or four Disney employees could currently imagine in their dreams, where nothing is real and there's nothing to get hung about.

She also got married three times in that same second or two. Two of those relationships will still be active by the time your conversation ends; one will last a thousand years. Let's not discuss the gender of her spouses or the specific nature of their congress; it would only upset you. As for children, Morgan has none; she does not feel she is old enough yet to do a good job at parenting.

Even when she drives meat -- inhabits an organic body -- Morgan does not live a life you would recognize. She is infinitely wealthy, like everybody else, able to do literally anything she can imagine. She works at whatever she likes, and only when she likes . . . which, of course, is a lot of the time. But when she does, the work is its own reward: she has never been paid by anyone for anything, nor sold anything to anybody, and might have difficulty grasping the concepts.

She is immortal and invulnerable, again like everybody else in her society. She can remember, vaguely, fearing death, because up until she was 100 or so it was theoretically possible for her to be killed, by sudden total destruction of her brain. But after 2200 even that unlikely possibility vanished, when all humans became permanent ongoing depositors in the Memory Bank.

If Morgan is ever creative enough to somehow explode her head, the Bank will grow a clone from her stored DNA and decant into its skull all her memories up to the moment of death. She will resume her life almost uninterrupted, death having been a brief nuisance.

Taxes outlived death, but not by much: the state really did wither away. Once universal immortality, invulnerability and inexhaustible wealth arrived, government -- finally -- became unnecessary.

"Hardcore addicts continued to fiddle with it for another pathetic century or two," Morgan says, "but no one paid much attention; eventually they got tired of telling each other what to do, and one by one consented to be cured. It was one of the last classic pathological behaviours to be stamped out -- followed closely by the sick compulsion to force others to profess one's religion."

Religion exists in 3000 -- flourishes, in fact, as far beyond that of today as the science is -- but there are no intolerant religions, no aggressive ones.

Nine centuries being a long time, Morgan has already worn so many different personalities that she has nearly outgrown the sentimental attachment to her original one . . . in the same way humanity has almost outgrown its atavistic fondness for Earth. That's something I forgot to mention: Morgan has never lived on Earth. Almost nobody does any more: the old home planet is now a sort of museum/park, a rather poorly attended one.

Morgan has never been lonely. She has never been monosexual or monoracial. She has never once been (or even feared being) poor, sick, badly hurt, unloved, robbed or insane. She has never seen a war, never felt anything you or I would call pain, she probably will never die, and she has never paid taxes. You tell me: Is Morgan a human being? How long will you two sustain your conversation?

One minor way in which Morgan is like us: Unlike most of her contemporaries, she has never lived more than one life. She has had her body cloned many times, for various reasons -- but she has never cloned her self, either organically or cybernetically: There has never been more than one Morgan in existence at any one time. Quite odd by the standards of 3000, but her eccentricity is tolerated. All eccentricities are tolerated -- indeed cherished. One of the closest things her time has to a problem we can comprehend is a tendency toward excessive conformity, perhaps inevitable in a people who can be anything they want and know exactly what consensus finds admirable at any given moment. They counter this by admiring nonconformity.

It's obvious by now that Morgan lives on the far side of a major discontinuity in history -- a Great Change, some awesome and unprecedented turning point after which nothing will ever be the same, a phase-shift transition much bigger than the leap from Neanderthal to Cro-Magnon. She calls it the Genius Bloom.

"Right around your day," she explains, "worldwide population reached the point at which half the geniuses that ever lived were alive -- and all had access to excellent tools and resources. The Singularity was inevitable."

Growing uneasy, you ask Morgan just when this technological singularity will occur. Brief confusion arises, since she's unfamiliar with your dating system. To her, the year is not 3000 but 1014 A.D.

After Drexler, that is.

Now, it starts to make sense. Morgan's society measures time from the publication -- in 1986, by your reckoning -- of the book Engines Of Creation, by K. Eric Drexler.

Given his nanotechnology, much of what Morgan has been saying suddenly becomes considerably more plausible.

Mr. Drexler's seminal book postulated extremely small robots he called nanoassemblers -- much smaller than microscopic, so tiny they are capable of manipulating individual atoms and assembling them into new molecules. At the speed of a reproducing virus.

Since 1986, Mr. Drexler has been asking the world scientific community to show him why this cannot be done. So far, nobody has come up with an insuperable objection. Several who set out to do so are now nanotechnology researchers with Mr. Drexler's Foresight Institute. (Irreverently called 'the teeny weenies.') The progress they report so far is exciting -- and their goals for the near future are astonishing.

Are you a smoker? Inhale this invisibly tiny nanoassembler. It will home in on your lungs, make x copies of itself, and roam around looking for tar molecules. Those it finds, it will disassemble, atom by atom. If you wish, it will use the pieces to build molecules of, say, tetrahydrocannabinol . . . or whatever.

Too late -- lung cancer is already established? No problem: this other assembler here seeks cancer cells, boards them and fixes their corrupted programming.

There is no organic dysfunction you can define that cannot be repaired by one nanoassembler with the right software. And why stop with repair? Scotchgard your teeth -- or coronary arteries. Build bigger biceps, or breasts, overnight, from your own flesh. Or not: Literal muscles of steel are perfectly possible . . . if impractical.

Feel like vacationing on Luna? Drop a spaceship seed into a vat of chemicals. Next morning, the vat has become a fully functional, lunar-capable spacecraft. When you get home, convert it to a car . . . or the original vat of chemicals.

Atoms are free and ubiquitous. If nanotechnology does come online -- which Mr. Drexler expects within 20 to 50 years -- the only cost of producing anything will be energy. And energy on the nanoscale is essentially free: just break a few chemical bonds. It will rain soup, forever.

(Unless the wrong assembler gets loose and converts the whole world to grey goo. But Mr. Drexler believes he has that covered. Read his book and argue, if you think you can. Please.. . .)

If anyone can have anything free, what use is money -- what use is greed itself? If every genius everywhere is located and cherished, and not one has anything more pressing to do than their work . . . how long can it take us to crack the information storage code of the human brain, and upload our very thoughts to disk? Once we can do that, we have telepathy. . . .

Perhaps this all sounds ghastly to you. We often grow attached to the misery we know; you may find Morgan and her telepathic society of invulnerable pansexual immortals frightening or repulsive. That's okay: no one will force you to join them if you don't want to. A telepathic society is necessarily compassionate. You can elect to be one of those "control naturals" who stay behind to maintain Earthpark and die here when your threescore and 10 are done, if you insist. I might even join you.

But don't expect your children or grandchildren to emulate us. The future always belongs to the pioneers.

Spider Robinson's best-known book, Callahan's Crosstime Saloon, reprinted this month in Tor paperback, is set in the 1970s. Its characters are people just like you. Well, except for the cyborg . . . and the talking dog . . . and the intergalactic travelling salesman. . . .


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Singularitarian FAQ ] [ When we will be like the gods ] Staring Into The Singularity ] Subjective time ] Damien Broderick ] Brain Scanning ] DARPA's supersoldiers ] Cyborg future ] Music from the Singularity ] First alien will be AI ]

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