Lamely going where mundanes have gone before
June 6, 2012
I am by no means a Star Trek fanboy, but this i09 article saying that Star Trek is out of date has bit so far into the man bites dog narrative that dog hair is sticking out of its teeth. That’s my cute way of saying that it ran with its narrative flourish way beyond the evidence.
Lame point #1. 24th century totally-augmented humans will hardly resemble today’s humans.
Why? Because they’ll be all super-augmented, either genetically or surgically. They’ll be bred/altered to live in space, on harsh worlds, for specific jobs, and heck they may not even need bodies.
Why it’s lame:
What counts as an augmentation? Assortive mating? Lower infant mortality? Birth control? Dental braces, dentures and implants? Plastic surgery? Hip and knee replacements? Lasik? Organ transplants? Corrective surgery? Prenatal vitamins? Education? Vaccines? Pacemakers? Brain implants to limit seizures and Parkinson’s? They all are, and we have them now.
The dream to exceed our own bodies’ limits is an ancient one, and this is just that same old thing with a sci fi chrome coating. Here’s why it won’t work:
1) the human body is optimized already. We get one body, and almost every augmentation is only done if needed (other than cosmetic surgery) because it is a second-best solution to restore some of the original function. We don’t replace knees to improve performance; it’s to restore lost functionality. Organ transplants require anti-rejection medication, breast implants cause problems; what happens when that chip in your body corrodes and leaches toxic metals into your bloodstream? Easier to carry a phone in your pocket.
2) the downside of failure is so high. You want to tweak your kid’s genes to make them prettier – what if it fails, or backfires, or something else goes wrong? There’s no re-do, no warranty. Tweak a gene to increase synapse growth to enhance brain capacity and maybe it causes brain cancer – want to chance it? Want to upload your brain to a computer? Well, it turns out that your brain’s thought patterns, memory, creativity, and even computation are highly connected to your glands, blood chemistry, etc. Maybe your brain can crunch numbers if it’s digitized, but it won’t be a human mind anymore.
Lame point #2. Forget spaceships, think rocket-driven flash drives
Because instead of launching meatbags across the cosmos, we’ll upload minds to data storage and send it out to terraform and settle other worlds because it’s more practical and efficient. Easier to travel, very little baggage like atmosphere, food, etc.
Why it’s lame:
The uploaded brain is a myth, a modern day descendant of the old Christian afterlife/ascension dream where we escape our earthly troubles and imperfect bodies. When people refer to the rapture of the nerds, the irony in the word ‘rapture’ is pretty thick.
Seriously, our space program regularly rediscovers (often at high cost) that unmanned robots and probes are poor substitutes for meatbag humans on the scene. And we already have spaceships. We like them. They inspire us. A hard drive can’t colonize anything. Even if it is nano-machines that can terraform a world ahead of the humans arriving, the humans still have to arrive. Plus there’s that pesky survival impulse, which makes an advanced Type I civilization realize it needs to be Type II, and colonize off its homeworld, lest it get wiped out like the dinosaurs. Plus there’s that human tic where we do crazy stunts (James Cameron on the ocean floor) just to do it, and by doing it we learn how to expand our capabilities.
Lame point #3. The Singularity Cometh
At some point, we’ll create a computer which will outstrip our own intelligence and the Nerd Rapture will happen. Star Trek hand-waved past all that by making Data want to throttle down to human limitations. The Singularity will cause the machines to take over, or will give us all cornucopias, or become a god.
Why it’s lame:
See the point above about the uploaded brain myth. This is more of the same, but assuming that a computer will upgrade itself to exceed our brains and abilities rather than doing it ourselves. I suspect there is a law of limited cognition that states that inorganic objects built by organic beings can’t exceed the intelligence of those beings. Computation is not sentience or intelligence, in much the same way as horsepower, while stronger than human muscle, is not a replacement for our own muscles. Yes, there are computers that can beat us in chess, Jeopardy, and may one day pass a Turing test, if that hasn’t happened yet. But how long until a computer can do everything that a human brain can, and then more? A very, very long time.
Lame Point #4. The Future Isn’t What You Think It is
Something here about how we’ll discover aliens soon, and get our comeuppance, and the tech thing will unfold in unforeseen ways, etc. We have it all wrong, and Star Trek was wronger, but its okay, because the future will be interesting anyway.
Why it’s lame:
All this talk of aliens, tech, the Fermi Paradox, biological augmentation and ghosts in the machine. Not a single idea about how humans interact, organize themselves, or structure their society and how that may change in the future. Star Trek boldly predicted that the human condition would improve dramatically, both socially and economically. It was a gutsy call then and a gutsy call now. Most science fiction doesn’t even bother with trying: it’s galactic or corporate empires all the way down. The ideas about how human society is advancing in parallel (but not because of) technology is completely ignored here. I’ll dig into that in a later post, because to me, that’s where the really interesting ground is, and it’s sitting there relatively unexplored.