What will humans look like a million years after the appearance of the Homo sapiens species?
Anders Sandberg, a doctor of computational neurology and a researcher at the Institute for the Future of Humanity, recently published a prediction about the way humans will look in seven hundred thousand years. Why exactly then? Simple: if Homo sapiens have existed for about 300,000 years, then on the appointed date we will celebrate our one millionth birthday.
And what will humans look like then?
Very, very different.
We will divide Sandberg's predictions into several key points: about the great split and the battle between the human species, about the transfer of intelligence and consciousness to computers, about the free energy from the sun and also about the restoration of nature. In the end you decide if it is good or bad.
In his book "The Time Machine", the writer H.G. How Wells time-travels to the year 802,701 AD, and discovers that the human race has split into two subspecies: the small, uncurious Elves, and the wild, ape-like Morlocks. The two species live separately - the Eloi exist above ground, while the Morlocks live in caves deep underground. They only meet under unfortunate circumstances where the Morlocks emerge above the surface of the earth to feed their souls on elven flesh..
Wells was one of the first scientists who thoroughly internalized the modern theory of evolution, and understood that the forces of natural selection can also act on the human race. Since Wells, one can find a wealth of literature about the possibility that humans will evolve and split into several different species. But Sandberg does not believe that such an evolution will occur due to natural selection, but in a deliberate manner. Directed, of course, by the humans themselves.
"There are many among us who want to improve the human condition - to slow down and eradicate aging, improve intelligence and mood, and change bodies -" he writes, acknowledging that these changes can, "potentially lead to new species."
In the long run, Sandberg believes that most "upgraded" people will accumulate improvement-by-improvement, generation-by-generation. The process may take many generations, but eventually they will become a different species. In fact, they could become many "post-human" species.
I connect very much with Sandberg's ideas, and especially with the central motif in which "natural selection" is no longer relevant for humans. Natural selection describes a situation where the forces of nature determine who will live and who will die. Those who are more suited to the environment - will be able to survive and produce more offspring, who will pass on their genes and traits to the next generation. Those who are less suitable will become extinct, together with their genes and their 'inferior' abilities. In a world where science provides us with advanced capabilities of genetic engineering, we can determine for ourselves what the characteristics of the people who will come after us will be. We don't have to rely on the original horrible way of trial and error - a way that is morally wrong because it costs the lives of many to achieve minimal improvement every generation. We can guide evolution on our own and with forethought and planning.
Does this mean that Homo sapiens will completely disappear from existence? Not necessarily. Sandberg believes that just as you can find people like the Hamish today, who live in an environment with only basic technology, so there will also be people in the future who choose to abstain from technology. More to the point, they will decide not to improve their bodies and genetic code, and stick to their original form. They will, of course, call themselves "the real humans", and will live in reserves that will be established and nurtured especially for them.
And around them? Around them will exist all the enormous post-human diversity that technology will allow. Although Sandberg does not describe exactly what the post-people who will populate the world will look like, it is understandable that their forms and features will be infinite. It almost goes without saying that no one knows what forms they will take, but many science fiction writers have already offered a thousand and one ideas. They will be tall, muscular and shapely, healthy and beautiful and perfect in every outward way. Or they will have extra large heads to accommodate their enhanced brains. And maybe they will even live in the body of a whale, as described in one of Ian M.'s books. Banks. There is no end to the possibilities, but the meaning is the same: the human race will no longer exist on the purity of Homo sapiens alone. Humans will be able to come in any form, gender and way of thinking.
scares you? Well, you can always stay in the reserves with the "real humans". But it is certainly possible that you should also open your horizons a little. In the end, is what matters to us the typical body shape of two legs, two arms, head and genitals? Or maybe what is really important is our relationship with our loved ones, the freedom to experiment, express ourselves in the way that suits us best, and try to fulfill our dreams and desires? I guess the answer is clear: the body is important, of course, but a person remains a person even if he lost his arms and legs in an accident. The "post-human" humans may change their external form - and maybe even their ways of thinking - but they will certainly still be able to experience happiness. It doesn't sound like such a terrible future.
But they won't be the only thinking creatures on the planet.
Sandberg believes that by our millionth birthday - and probably much, much, much before that - we will already be able to create general artificial intelligence. That is, those that can learn new tasks just like humans, and even better. Not only that, but we can also instill consciousness and self-awareness in them. These will be entities with equal rights to every person, properly. In fact, some of them will be human right from the start, as they will be based on human brains that have been scanned and recreated on a computer as a simulation.
Why would we want to make computerized humans? One important reason is that they require much less resources than maintaining a human body. In the end, what really matters to us is the mind. If we can only sustain the brain - and especially if it is already computerized - then it is possible to flow neural information into it and provide the person in the simulation with any experience they want. And we can do it at zero costs, because the energy to run the simulation will come from renewable sources like sunlight.
In view of this prediction about the capabilities of technology, it is no wonder that Sandberg believes that in the Sahara deserts of the future we will find trillions of artificial minds, which receive the energy to run them from the sun. Some of the processing centers that will be used to run the artificial brains will circle around the sun itself. In fact, they will completely surround it and create what is known as the "Dyson sphere": a huge sphere around the sun, which absorbs all the energy it produces and uses it for the benefit of humanity. And in Sandberg's words -
“…every watt of energy drives thought, consciousness, complexity, and other strange things we don't have words for yet.”
Many may think that this is a catastrophic future, but for me, it is a future of victory: the victory of thought and consciousness, over the entropy and chaos of the universe. If the artificial intelligences benefit from self-awareness, then they will in fact be the offspring of humanity. It may be difficult for us to understand how they think, but that's okay: I am convinced that I will also have a hard time understanding the way of thinking of my grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Such is human existence from generation to generation.
If you've come this far and are deeply shaken, perhaps Sandberg's latest prediction will cheer you up: on the millionth birthday, humanity will restore the natural appearance of the Earth's surface. Most of the Earth's surface will become forest areas, prairies, swamps, snowy mountains and all other natural sights that we are used to seeing in National Geographic. The reason for this will be that we simply won't need the same huge number of cities and farming areas as before. The "original" humans who will continue to live as in ancient times, will do so in limited reserves. The others will mostly exist inside the computers. So why not really restore the original shape of the planet?
This entire column was written following a question addressed to me by a certain news channel, who wanted to know if Sandberg was right. The answer, of course, is that we have no idea. Even the smartest person today cannot accurately predict the future five years from now. How can you even pretend to know what will happen in 700,000 years?
Sandberg himself admits that this is impossible. As he writes -
"My job is to explore the possibilities, and I think the most likely case is..."
That is, he makes guesses based on the way he sees and understands the world today. If these predictions come true in full, I will be very surprised - and I assume Sandberg will feel the same way. His guesses are mainly intended to open the discourse about the future, and to help us think today about issues that will become critical in a few years. Should artificial intelligences have their own rights? Should people be allowed to upgrade their bodies - and if so, should we actively help those who want to preserve their "formal humanity" while everyone around them pursues progress and efficiency? Should we raise the next generations as computer simulations? And if so, where will we get the energy necessary for their existence?
You can shrug your shoulders and say that the answers to all of these will be found in the future, but this is precisely why Sandberg insists on raising these issues today. The future does not come just like that. It is always based on the thoughts, ideas and technologies we are currently developing. If you don't like the future that Sandberg describes - it's your time to act to prevent it from happening. And if you think like me that this is a good future - even if it is strange and scary - then you too should be involved in discussions and developments on these issues to make your voice heard.
I like to say that in the future, my role is to identify the threats and opportunities, bring them to the attention of the decision makers - and let them decide what to do now. Usually, the "decision makers" are CEOs of companies and heads of state. But when it comes to predictions concerning the future of humanity as a whole, each and every one of us should be included in the honorable category of "decision makers". That's why I wrote this post for you. So that you can think about this future and make a decision for yourself whether it is good or bad - and which parts of it you want to be realized.
And if you have reached the end of the record - congratulations to you. Now it's your turn to make the decision.