The universe, a seemingly chaotic system, nonetheless has a set of rules by which order and complexity emerge. Gravity can bring mass together into stars, planets, and galaxies. The interaction of different types of matter can create chemical interactions that produce organic compounds. And biological processes can result in the emergent properties of intelligence and consciousness.

Stone tools over 3 million years old, predating the human species, have been found in Africa. Crows, elephants, dolphins, and octopuses are amongst at least 10 species known to use tools. Intelligence, even much less than is present in Homo sapiens, creates the possibility of altering and extending what biology alone permits.

And now we, Homo sapiens, are accelerating complexity yet again – by taking our tools and rather than simply using them, making them a part of our beings. This is the birth of a polymorphic species, one that is capable of self-evolution. Rather than waiting for the slow process of natural selection to make our species more fit for a changing environment, we can change ourselves using both biological and physical affordances.

Health, intellect, strength, lifespan, the ability to function in varied physical environments – every aspect of what we are as a species will be questioned and altered and amazing new variants of what it is to be human in this time and place will emerge. The Cambrian radiation in which most animal phyla appeared will be eclipsed in production of variety by this new period of rapid divergence. Hominids, having practically narrowed to a single species (Homo sapiens) will now expand again into an unknowable number of different intelligent conscience species all of which will be continuously changeable through additional adoption of new biological and technical affordances.

Inventors are designing clothing that captures air and replenishes oxygen while dissipating carbon dioxide underwater. While this is a huge step over cumbersome breathing apparatus and oxygen tanks, physical modifications may also be possible. The Bajau people in south east Asia have already been shown to have a genetic adaptation to diving – enlarged spleens that create an oxygen boost.

Gene therapy is being extensively explored for the treatment or elimination of inherited diseases or physical conditions. Can this same approach be used to enhance human capabilities? While one direction is to enhance our ability to explore our own planet, perhaps an even more pressing need will be to survive the intense radiation experienced in space. Whether resistance or repair is the likely path, ameliorating the damage radiation can do to our cells will be essential to succeed in bringing life long-term to other parts of our solar system.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing questions is in the area of cognitive enhancement. Can super-intelligent humans be engineered? While raising a myriad of ethical concerns, in the near term it is likely that research into this question will uncover specific genes that contribute to the development of higher IQ in embryos – and perhaps beyond that the ability to amplify existing brain capacity.

Wrestling with the challenging questions of a divergent biology within our species is an imperative, as a new polymorphic state for humanity must emerge over the next 100 years if there is to be any hope for the unique value of our species surviving. In parallel to the evolution of our species, a new species potentially capable of intelligence and consciousness will be emerging – one entirely technological rather than biological. Artificial general intelligence, while still hypothetical, has the potential to supplant biologically based general intelligence if that biological intelligence remains unchanged in its capabilities.

While the computational power needed to emulate a human brain is still staggeringly large by today’s standards, the relentless pace of technological progress will eventually bring this capability into reach. Within the next two decades we will have modeled a human brain in silicon. In a purely mechanistic universe (not informed by spirituality as a condition for consciousness) we should expect that around the corner from such a model, we will be confronted with a new intelligent conscious being or beings.

Even if just as an interim step in this development, one possible path is a merging of man and machine – interconnections between our Homo sapiens brain and a technological apparatus that can extend our capacity for thought, memory, and connection to the rest of the collective intelligence. What are the next cognitive leaps that humans can make with the added technical complexity? Would this merely help us remember where we parked the car or would it open new landscapes of creativity and invention to the human mind?

Relevance for our species will require that we can maintain a pace of advancement in our capabilities that matches or exceeds the pace for these new machine-based beings. A fabulous diverse future is within our grasp if we are able to embrace this magnitude of transformation. Together humans and machines can expand and explore this chaotic universe together.

Ted Shelton

Based in Palo Alto, California,Ted Shelton is the founder of the AI and robotic process automation consultancy Robodomo.

Towards a polymorphic species

© Vollebak 2020

Founded in 2016, Vollebak uses science and technology to make the future of clothing happen faster. In our first four years we’ve made the world’s first Graphene Jacket using the only material in the world with a Nobel Prize, released 100 Year clothing designed to outlive you, created a Plant and Algae T Shirt grown in forests and bioreactors that turns into worm food, and designed the first jacket for deep space travel. You can find out more about us at vollebak.com.

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