On my return from Africa I had a yearning to get out on the bike, the call of nature was strong, my body was telling me it wanted to assume the position. So, I've managed to clock up over 500 miles since last week, including demo rides of the new Triumph Tiger 800 XRT and BMW F 850 GS.
The Tiger is a lovely bike, but the GS has pipped it for me. Riding the GS I was hardly conscious of my body moving at all, it seemed that all I needed was to think about where to go and that was where I went. I really like it when that happens, it feels like the machine and I are not separate but one and the same. On reflection, I think that statement is quite true.
What controls the machine? Our brains and the complex balancing mechanism we have evolved. We control the power through our mastery of electricity, chemistry, fuel storage and delivery to ultimately motion. What controls my body movements? A series of electrical impulses that tells muscle fibers to inject themselves with calcium so that muscles contract and then potassium to block the muscle's ability to sustain contraction. The similarities are easy to spot, the use of electricity being the first obvious one. It's our way of communicating both to our internal and external world, a precursor and an enabler of action. I love electricity. And the electromagnetic spectrum. Subjects for another blog.
Communication is the oil in the chain of change
But back to us. One of the amazing things about us humans is how we have been able to harness the power of technology in such a short time. It appears that the progress of change is exponential, mainly because of the communications revolution. When Newton published his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, arguably the first great scientific work) in 1687 it was to a small, specialist audience. It was several decades before it was translated into English. Another century before it was regarded by peers to be the masterpiece that it was. Imagine that today. As soon as an academic work is published, it is peer reviewed by thousands and accessible globally, immediately. It is torn apart, built upon, discussed and ultimately the foundation for the next big leap. Google translate at your service, no need to wait fifty years. Fifty seconds ok?
So this is us humans, harnessing the 118 elements in the world, using and understanding our environment, upgrading things with ever increasing efficiency and complex technology. But what about us? What about our bodies, our flesh and blood, the organs we use to both move and continue homeostasis? When did they last get an upgrade?
I'll take my body and raise you a new arm
As you know, upgrades on 'us' take a lifetime. A genetic lifetime that is. Evolution got us where we are by introducing changes that either were, or were not, advantageous through a process called natural selection. Small changes in the DNA here and there. The occasional leap change. Imagine waiting a lifetime to run a new program? Imagine no more, because that's what happens with our bodies. Oh sure, we can tweak the performance here and there with good fuel, exercise and the power of thought. (Yes, thoughts actually do physically change the chemistry in our brains, positive thoughts introduce enkephalins which bind to opioid receptors in the brain and mimic the action of morphine and codeine.) But in terms of real physical change, such as adding an extra limb, that would take a new generation or sixty.
Actually, I guess it has to be pointed out that we wouldn't allow nature to experiment in this way now because it would be seen as rather grotesque to have three arms and it would be 'corrected', even if (hypothetically) it would be an asset to this generation to be able to text and get dressed at the same time.
My chip is bigger than your chip
But nature is a clever old girl and my theory is that she's got this covered. If these wonderous biological life forms are evolving too slowly, what could speed things up? Well, how about a move away from carbon-based biology and into silicone, metal and other additive materials? We can and are replacing parts of our bodies with synthetic materials, exo-skeletons, hearing devices, electrodes into the head to help people to see again, arms, legs, chips under the skin to pay for things in the staff canteen (true, a US firm called Three Square Market has chipped its employees). These are all here now. One guy has implanted a chip under his skin so he can start his bike just by walking up to it. Neat huh? There even exists a creative group of people called 'grinders' who modify their own bodies with technological improvements.
If you think about it, your phone is an extension of your brain, containing the information of a planet yet the speed you can process it is still down to your older cognitive, biological neural computer. It's just not 'inside' your head at this point in time. This will soon change, I predict that one day, within our children's lifetimes, mind-reading software will have become better and instead of just moving a cursor on a screen with your thoughts (this can be done now) we will be able to train computers to read more complex, conscious thoughts. You will have a sim card inside your head and be permanently connected, perhaps you'll just speak out loud to it or maybe it will be able to read your mind. Probably the first option to begin with because then you can be upgraded at outrageous cost. Cynical, moi?
Even computers are going through change, quantum computing unlocking phenomenal computing power as well as the development of neurosynaptic chips - computer chips whose infrastructure mimics the structure of neurons in the brain. From time to time I check in with the IBM SyNAPSE project to evaluate progress. It's something I know that, when a big breakthrough is made, you'll see it explode into mainstream news and media reporting and wonder how long that's being going on for..
Because Nature is frigging awesome
I argue this is all part of our evolution. I don't think that what we are doing is separate from nature, it IS nature. We are evolving and adapting using other materials that are faster to upgrade and which will eventually be more suited to us than the original. I say 'eventually' because we are really only just beginning and no-one is swapping a real arm for a false one just yet. But augmentation is happening right now. My big question is though, whether we will be able to change fast enough psychologically to ensure our survival for another 500 or 1000 years?
As I'm sure you will agree, we have emotions inside us that can sometimes lead us to act… somewhat illogically. Fear in particular is responsible for a lot of damage to our fellow humans and the planet. Fear of loss, fear of failure, fear of ridicule, fear of security, fear of hunger, fear of death. I'm not saying fear isn't necessary and isn't appropriate, of course it is, but fear has got out of control. It doesn't help that the media use it to sell stories or the corporate world uses it to sell products. It's been magnified and its power used inappropriately. It's an emotion and, like other powerful emotions, it lead us to sometimes act irrationally and/or spontaneously. When we have so much power at our fingertips, it's like giving children hand-grenades.
We could pretty much give a decent standard of living to everyone on the planet through use of technology but first we'd need to put into perspective greed and fear and take some pretty big decisions globally. But that's not going to happen. Apart from fear being used by people to sell you stuff and mobilise you it's an important part of your brain's hardware that exists to spot a threat, a little almond shaped thing called the Amygdala, which we will not be replacing, upgrading or augmenting it anytime soon. Unless…
Is logic going to save us?
So back to those neurosynaptic chips. It's my belief that one day we will be to upload our brain into a cognitive processor and then upload consciousness there. Work is simultaneously continuing apace with computing to understand where consciousness arises in the brain. There are two current theories predominating, Global Workspace Theory and Integrated Information Theory. Sounds very tech doesn't it? But nope, this is the brain we're talking about. See how the similarities between man and machine are beginning to become more apparent the more we research?
There's so much going on right now, we speed we are learning about this organ is phenomenal so I don't think this is too sci-fi to imagine. What if, when we upload consciousness we could also do something like inject some more rationality into our new brains so that we first weigh up consequences before we act? Perhaps see if a threat is real or perceived and evaluate the outcomes to our actions before we press that button or stick that finger up at a motorist? If we did that to ourselves though, the big question is, would we still be human?
I would say not. Like we are no longer single-celled creatures that lived in the sea. No amoeba's rose up and formed a pressure group to object to that change, did they? But we would still be nature, evolving and adapting in order to survive. Instead of genes what would we pass on during intimate moments? A USB stick maybe? Hmmm, perhaps we should keep those emotions after all. Some are pretty neat.
Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.