The matrix is here. I’ll put a few strands together and think you’ll be okay with it.
Exhibit 1: the metaverse. This digital space where a large part of our lives can be lived becomes a reality. In due course, built by tech giants like Facebook (sorry, Meta), Tencent, Snap, and Microsoft, the metaverse will combine digital and virtual reality. Things like non-fungible tokens, digital currencies, and experiences will be available for purchase from companies from which we regularly purchase goods and services in the “real” world. Nike, for example, has indicated its intention to make and sell virtual branded sneakers and apparel in a recent trademark application.
Part 2: neural interfaces. I wrote about this before. These are technologies that connect our brains to digital devices. There has been considerable progress relatively recently, as well-funded private sector startups have joined the field and made significant strides in connection hardware and our understanding of parts of the brain. Some of these startups were acquired by established tech players. Specifically, Facebook bought Ctrl-Labs in late 2019. In addition, American scientists reported in early October their success in mapping all brain cells associated with movement – the motor cortex.
Exhibit 3a: our bodies. These can be understood as a neural interface – a device that allows our brains to interact with the world. It is a biological interface, capable of taste, touch, hearing, smell and vision. In due course, the neural interfaces in Room 2 should plug directly into our brains and be able to mimic the sensations of body functions.
Exhibit 3b: our brains. It seems that neurons, which trigger brain waves to produce our thoughts and feelings, don’t quite age like the rest of us. In 2013, neuroscientists at Yale University demonstrated that the brains of mice were able to live twice as long as their bodies. Our own minds, scientists suspect, can also outlive our bodies much longer.
By bringing these exhibits together, it is not difficult to see how, in the decades or centuries to come, our brain alone, without the need for a body, will be fully connected to a realistic virtual world.
With my science fiction cap, it’s not hard to imagine a battery of pots housing our connected brains. The space to hold the sum total of humanity’s brains wouldn’t need to be that big, as each jar would have to be less than eight inches on either side.
Imagine: with sufficiently good neural interfaces, we wouldn’t even know we are bodiless, because all experiences seem so ‘real’. It would also be a completely ecological solution to life, while allowing our lives to be so much longer.
Our life as a connected metaverse-brain-in-jar would not be passive.
We would work, code, harvest, produce and consume, as much as we are now and billions of times more. But without the journey. Our interaction with AI and software would be much closer and transparent, as parts of the metaverse would be maintained and nurtured by programs. We might not even know they were programs, so good are their rational decision making based on machine learning and probability.
But above all: would we want that? Is this imaginary way of life a dystopia or a utopia?
Consider this: If we had a choice, none of us would have decided 20 years ago to want to interact with each other on screen, to be exposed to divisive fake news, or to care. really an influencer opinion on hedgehog flavored crisps.
Dystopia is only possible if we do – and I admit we seem more than capable.
But the brain metaverse could also be a form of collective intelligence put to good use. We could come together to solve problems that affect all of humanity. We could only pause our gas consuming and emitting bodies to wake them up in a world where solutions were found and implemented. Virtual reality and the operation of remote machines would be our tools and means to improve the world and fix what is broken. People – their brains – could be protected until the world becomes a better place. It could be like landing on a new planet worthy of life.
I am not advocating a collective movement to live in a jar. Far from there.
In accordance with the mandate of the Dubai Future Foundation, I say that we must anticipate technologies that can impact our lives. We must anticipate the combination of emerging technologies: the metaverse will not exist in isolation, as neural interfaces will coexist with other technologies.
I see them coming together and I see the opportunity and the obligation to orient towards the common good.
We live in a time of tremendous innovation and today’s reality is unknown to people two generations ago. We are not on autopilot towards a future decided by technology developers. We can shape the future according to our needs and a radically different future of abandoning our bodies and freeing our brains to solve the planet’s problems may be one of the options ahead.
There is always the possibility of settling on another planet, to send there and to hope that it will support us long enough. But surely there has to be a better third way, which can just mean that we’re going to anticipate the implications of the matrix and decide not to develop it fully. Developing technology that has no clear social benefits, and doing it just because we can benefit from it, shouldn’t be enough of a reason.
Posted: 9 Nov 2021, 05:00 AM