Arthur C. Clarke once speculated that "all really high intelligences will be machines. Unless they're beyond the machine. But biological intelligence is a lower form of intelligence, almost inevitably. We're in an early stage in the evolution of intelligence, but a late stage in the evolution of life. Real intelligence won't be living."
Many futurologists have predicted that we will evolve into machine-human hybrids with our consciousness intact or even enhanced. Some feel that this transition might come within the next century. Variations on this theme range from Bill Joy-type doomsday scenarios to utopian visions of "uploading" our memories and thoughts into an immortal, pain-free machine state and building for ourselves any bodies we choose. The biological stage may be a mere precursor to what technologist Ray Kurzweil calls "the age of spiritual machines."
In many ways, we already are human-machine hybrids. I sit thwacking away at my computer all day, my thought processes, memories, and communications increasingly dependent on it. While I work, I am often connected to several different computers in different cities. Eventually, I leave work and head home (don't worry, there are computers there, too). As I turn into my driveway, I'm simultaneously cranking the steering wheel, stepping on the brake, hanging up the phone, tuning the stereo, and pushing the garage door opener. Every evening I do all this as effortlessly as Homer at the beginning of each episode of The Simpsons. We've constructed an elaborate high-tech matrix within which we are merely the organic, semi-intelligent component. Already, machines are us, and we are them. Goo goo ga joob.
If we receive an interstellar message we may never know if it was sent by machines or biological organisms. Perhaps it will come from sen tient organisms who have evolved radio dishes for sensory and communicative organs and computers for memories and minds, as we ourselves may now be doing. Even if we meet the aliens in person, will we be able to tell if they are machine or organism? Will we be able to differentiate "individuals" from tightly knit, machine-enabled communities? These puzzles give us reason to question our cozy categories. Notice that when I've written about "the immortals," I haven't said whether I think it is civilizations, species, machines, or individuals who will evolve to live forever. I've intentionally blurred these lines because I think that for the immortals such distinctions may have become meaningless.
According to one theory, a kind of mineral life may have existed on Earth before carbon-based life. Now, carbon has so remade our world that if this former life ever existed, all vestiges of it have long since been erased. Will our silicon machines one day erase all vestiges of carbon life from their world?* Our carbon-based egos recoil in horror at the thought, but from the point of view of the machines, this may only be the beginning of something magnificent that we can scarcely envision. Rejecting the value and sanctity of machine sentience may someday be regarded as just another form of ignorance, racism, or bigotry. The new machine-human hybrids may keep us on for a time as useful organs in their silicon structures. Then, someday, they may leave our fragile, ephemeral bodies behind altogether and take to the stars. Five billion years hence, as Earth is roasted dry by our bloated, red, dying star, our descendants may briefly pause to remember us as they ride off out of the sunset, seeking other green worlds or the company of like-minded spiritual machines.
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