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Selling (And Exploiting) Human Enhancement: An Ominous Lesson From “Superior Iron Man”

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How much would you be willing to pay for perfect health, perfect beauty, and a greater capacity to enjoy life as you see fit? This is not a rhetorical question. I would even argue that it’s an increasingly relevant question. In the coming years, answering it might even become more urgent.

I’ve talked about the prospects of human enhancement through emerging technology before. From its impact on our concept of beauty to how our society will function, there are many impacts to consider. Some of those impacts are already manifesting before our eyes. Just last year, the first genetically modified babies were born in China. Like it or not, this is happening.

It’s impossible to overstate the benefits, risks, and upheavals that human enhancement will have on our species and our world. Nobody knows for sure what’s going to happen as this technology matures or how societies, economies, and governments will react to it. Even so, it’s worth contemplating. It’s even worth imagining elaborate scenarios in fictional worlds.

While plenty of noteworthy stories have imagined such scenarios, some more dystopian than others, there’s one in particular I’d like to single out. It’s not entirely dystopian, but it does offer some distressing lessons about the larger economics of human enhancement. It also helps that those lessons come through a forgotten, but criminally underrated Iron Man comic.

Given the rapid rise of Iron Man’s star power over the past decade, his character is uniquely qualified to explore these difficult questions surrounding technology and how we use it. He is, at his core, a visionary who uses technology to solve problems, save lives, and occasionally fight invading aliens. In the series, “Superior Iron Man,” he takes that vision several steps further and cross many lines along the way.

While there are some convoluted circumstances surrounding this series, the ideas it explores are profound, even by the standards of superhero comics. You don’t need to know the specifics of those circumstances. They involve forces like magic and inversion spells, which are far too complicated to explain to those who haven’t followed Marvel comics for more than two decades.

The only detail anyone needs to know about “Superior Iron Man” is that the Tony Stark in this story is not the same lovable character that helped make Robert Downy Jr. one of the most lovable stars in Hollywood. This version of Tony is less bound by concepts of heroism, selflessness, and sobriety. That’s not to say he’s evil, but he’s definitely no hero.

Within this ethically bankrupt state, Tony embarks on a new initiative that’s as selfish as it is lucrative. It revolves around Extremis, an exotic cocktail of nanotechnology and biotechnology that effectively rewrites the blueprint of the entire human body into something better, stronger, and more robust. In essence, it is the ultimate tool for human enhancement.

While the initial version of Extremis was lethal to most people who used it, Tony creates a more commercialized version in “Superior Iron Man” that gives everyone a chance to enjoy its benefits. He calls it Extremis 3.0 and people can access it through a simple smartphone app. With it, people can achieve what Tony describes as physical perfection.

Everyone can be perfectly healthy.

Everyone can be young and beautiful.

Everyone can be functionally immortal.

It sounds like a miracle drug and by every measure, it is. This isn’t some Dr. Oz wannabe pitching vitamins that do nothing other than give you false hope. This technology actually works. With it, Tony gives the entire city of San Francisco a chance to experience the fruits of human enhancement.

Understandably, once people get a taste of what Extremis 3.0 has to offer, they love it. They also take full advantage of it. At one point in the story, Pepper Potts says it’s turning the streets of San Francisco into a non-stop parade of debauchery and self-indulgence. Tony does not see this as a bad thing. If anything, it perfectly complements his plans and his renewed appetite for self-indulgence.

This is where “Superior Iron Man” attempts to answer that question about putting a price on physical perfection. Writer Tom Taylor, alongside artist Yildiray Çinar, doesn’t hide from the disturbing parts of that answer. By the end of the first issue, Tony puts a literal price on that perfection. Needless to say, it causes plenty of conflict and it escalates quickly.

When he initially released Extremis 3.0 onto San Francisco, he gives ordinary people a taste of what it’s like to be as fit as Captain America, as beautiful as Emma Frost, and as physically endowed as Thor. It’s not a drug that just attempts to match that feeling. It physically changes their bodies and their capacity for using them. That taste, however, was just a free sample. To keep enjoying it, they must pay $99 a day.

It’s crude trick right out of the playbook of subscription apps. People get a free trial period that’s just long enough to get them hooked. Then, before they even realize they have to pay anything, they get hit with a paywall. It’s a cruel bait-and-switch, but this isn’t just another streaming video service. This is physical perfection and unlimited self-indulgence. Is $99 a day really that unreasonable?

It certainly rubs plenty of people the wrong way, including many of Tony’s long-time friends and allies. Both Daredevil and Pepper Potts turn against him for such devious tactic. It also has some noticeable effects on the people who use it. By the end of the first issue, a stark class divide emerges between those who can afford Extremis 3.0 and those who can’t.

Naturally, it causes crime and conflict among the residents of San Francisco. Tony, now both feared and beloved by these people, takes it upon himself to manage it. He gains power, wealth, status, and an endless supply of eager party guests for whenever he seeks to indulge. It’s a perfect cocktail of recklessness and irresponsibility.

Without spoiling the rest of the story, which ended too soon, I think it’s worth taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture that “Superior Iron Man” presented. If you take away the iconic characters and the superhero themes, you get a story about a selfish business tycoon who has sole possession of the ultimate biotech product.

The goal isn’t to heal the sick, ease suffering, or evolve the human species. The goal is simply to make a lot of money, feed an inflated ego, and indulge in every conceivable vice without consequences. It’s a worst-case scenario for liberals and conservatives, alike. At the same time, it makes a compelling case that our current system can’t handle the impacts of large-scale human enhancement.

That doesn’t mean it can’t succeed in our current system. The size of the current biotech industry is already measured in the hundreds of billions. Overpriced drugs are nothing new, either. Just this past year, the FDA approved a drug called Zolgensma, which costs $425,000 a year for five years to treat a rare genetic disorder called spinal muscular atrophy.

By comparison, Extremis 3.0 is a bargain with far greater value. Even at $99 a day, the yearly cost of enjoying that physical perfection amounts to around $36,500 a year. That still takes up a good chunk of the average income for most Americans, but considering all the benefits of having a perfect body, is it still a bargain?

For anyone who has overpaid for inflated medical expenses, I suspect they would gladly pay that high price for Extremis 3.0. Tony Stark banked on that in “Superior Iron Man” and he was right. People did pay and it was very lucrative for him. The population of the San Francisco Bay Area in which he unleashed Extremis 3.0 is around 4.6 million. At $99 a day, that’s a potential annual revenue of $167 billion.

In terms of business ranking, that would put Tony’s venture in the top 20 in terms of largest companies by revenue. If he were to unleash Extremis on the entire United States, the potential annual revenue would be near $11.8 trillion. That’s a little more than half of the entire US economy.

Imagine one company, let alone one person, having that much money and influence over a population. Tony was already a billionaire before “Superior Iron Man,” but Extremis 3.0 rewarded him with more than just money. Tony, being the sole provider, held a great deal of power and influence over San Francisco. As is often the case in superhero stories, that power goes to his head.

That story plays out in the real world just as often. In some cases, it brings out the worst in people. For a product like Extremis 3.0, which provides human enhancement into a simple commercial package that anyone can access through an app, the potential for abuse is much worse.

Beyond the greed it would inspire and the recklessness it fosters, it would also widen and solidify a gap in society that might be impossible to close. The wealth gap is in the non-superhero world is already egregious. Adding something like Extremis 3.0 to the mix would only make it immeasurably worse.

More than a few people has expressed concern about the prospects of such an enormous societal divide. “Superior Iron Man” showed just how bad it could get and how quickly it could escalate. While the series only managed to explore this conflict to a point before it got canceled, Tom Taylor did enough to get a powerful point across.

In a world where human enhancement is real and commercially available, how do we go about distributing it among a population? Should we put a price on it? How high should that price be? Who should be in control of it?

Worst case scenario.

Superior Iron Man” never got a chance to explore the answers, but these are questions that will become increasingly relevant as advances in biotechnology accelerate. We may not be close to having a product like Extremis 3.0 and it’s uncertain whether we’ll even develop something like it in the next few decades.

Even if we do, “Superior Iron Man” made one thing clear. We, as a species and a society, are not ready for it.

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Filed under biotechnology, futurism, health, human nature, Neuralink, Sexy Future, superhero comics

Killer Robots, Drone Warfare, And How Artificial Intelligence Might Impact Both

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On November 5, 2001, the history of warfare changed forever. On that date, an unmanned Predator drone armed with hellfire missiles killed Mohammed Atef, a known Al-Qaida military chief and the son-in-law to Osama Bin Laden. From a purely strategic standpoint, this was significant in that it proved the utility of a new kind of weapon system. In terms of the bigger picture, it marked the start of a new kind of warfare.

If the whole of human history has taught us anything, it’s that the course of that history changes when societies find new and devastating ways to wage war. In ancient times, to wage war, you needed to invest time and resources to train skilled warriors. That limited the scope and scale of war, although some did make the most of it.

Then, firearms came along and suddenly, you didn’t need a special warrior class. You just needed to give someone a gun, teach them how to use it, and organize them so that they could shoot in a unit. That raised both the killing power and the devastating scale of war. The rise of aircraft and bombers only compounded that.

In the 20th century, warfare became so advanced and so destructive that the large-scale wars of the past just aren’t feasible anymore. With the advent of nuclear weapons, the potential dangers of such a war are so great that no spoils are worth it anymore. In the past, I’ve even noted that the devastating power of nuclear weapons have had a positive impact on the world, albeit for distressing reasons.

Now, drone warfare has added a new complication. Today, drone strikes are such a common tactic that it barely makes the news. The only time they are noteworthy is when one of those strikes incurs heavy civilian casualties. It has also sparked serious legal questions when the targets of these strikes are American citizens. While these events are both tragic and distressing, there’s no going back.

Like gunpowder before it, the genie is out of the bottle. Warfare has evolved and will never be the same. If anything, the rise of combat drones will only accelerate the pace of change with respect to warfare. Like any weapon before it, some of that change will be negative, as civilian casualties often prove. However, there also potential benefits that could change more than just warfare.

Those benefits aren’t limited to keeping keep soldiers out of combat zones. From a cost standpoint, drones are significantly cheaper. A single manned F-22 Raptor costs approximately $150 million while a single combat drone costs about $16 million. That makes drones 15 times cheaper and you don’t need to be a combat ace to fly one.

However, those are just logistical benefits. It’s the potential that drones have in conjunction with advanced artificial intelligence that could make them every bit as influential as nuclear weapons. Make no mistake. There’s plenty of danger in that potential. There always is with advanced AI. I’ve even talked about some of those risks. Anyone who has seen a single “Terminator” movie understands those risks.

When it comes to warfare, though, risk tolerance tends to be more complicated than anything you see in the movies. The risks of AI and combat drones have already sparked concerns about killer robots in the military. As real as those risks are, there’s another side to that coin that rarely gets discussed.

Think back to any story involving a drone strike that killed civilians. There are plenty of incidents to reference. Those drones didn’t act on orders from Skynet. They were ordered by human military personnel, attempting to make tactical decision on whatever intelligence they had available at the time. The drones may have done the killing, but a human being gave the order.

To the credit of these highly trained men and women in the military, they’re still flawed humans at the end of the day. No matter how ethically they conduct themselves, they’re ability to assess, process, and judge a situation is limited. When those judgments have lives on the line, both the stakes and the burdens are immense.

Once more advanced artificial intelligence enters the picture, the dynamics for drone warfare changes considerably. This isn’t pure speculation. The United States Military has gone on record saying they’re looking for ways to integrate advanced AI into combat drones. While they stopped short of confirming they’re working on their own version of Skynet, the effort to merge AI and combat drones is underway.

In an overly-simplistic way, they basically confirmed they’re working on killer robots. They may not look like the Terminator or Ultron, but their function is similar. They’re programmed with a task and that task may or may not involve killing an enemy combatant. At some point, a combat drone is going to kill another human being purely based on AI.

That assumes it hasn’t already happened. It’s no secret that the United States Military maintains shadowy weapons programs that are often decades ahead of their time. Even if it hasn’t happened yet, it’s only a matter of time. Once an autonomous drone kills another human being, we’ll have officially entered another new era of warfare.

In this era, there are no human pilots directing combat drones from afar. There’s no human being pulling the trigger whenever a drone launches its lethal payload into a combat situation. The drones act on their own accord. They assess all the intel they have on hand, process it at speeds far beyond that of any human, and render decisions in an instant.

It sounds scary and it certainly is. Plenty of popular media, as well as respected public figures, paint a terrifying picture of killer robots killing without remorse or concern. However, those worst-case-scenarios overlook both the strategic and practical aspect of this technology.

In theory, a combat drone with sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence will be more effective than any human pilot could ever be in a military aircraft. It could fly better, carrying out maneuvers that would strain or outright kill even the most durable pilots. It could react better under stressful circumstances. It could even render better judgments that save more lives.

Imagine, for a moment, a combat drone with systems and abilities so refined that no human pilot or officer could hope to match it. This drone could fly into a war zone, analyze a situation, zero in on a target, and attack with such precision that there’s little to no collateral damage.

If it wanted to take a single person out, it could simply fire a high-powered laser that hits them right in the brain stem.

If it wants to take out someone hiding in a bunker, it could utilize a smart bullet or a rail gun that penetrates every level of shielding and impacts only a limited area.

If it wants to take out something bigger, it could coordinate with other drones to hit with traditional missiles in such a way that it had no hope of defending itself.

Granted, drones this advanced probably won’t be available on the outset. Every bit of new technology goes through a learning curve. Just look at the first firearms and combat planes for proof of that. It takes time, refinement, and incentive to make a weapons system work. Even before it’s perfected, it’ll still have an impact.

At the moment, the incentives are definitely there. Today, the general public has a very low tolerance for casualties on both sides of a conflict. The total casualties of the second Iraq War currently sit at 4,809 coalition forces and 150,000 Iraqis. While that’s only a fraction of the casualties suffered in the Vietnam War, most people still deem those losses unacceptable.

It’s no longer feasible, strategically or ethically, to just blow up an enemy and lay waste to the land around them. Neither politics nor logistics will allow it. In an era where terrorism and renegade militias pose the greatest threat, intelligence and precision matter. Human brains and muscle just won’t cut it in that environment. Combat drones, if properly refined, can do the job.

Please note that’s a big and critical if. Like nuclear weapons, this a technology that nobody in any country can afford to misuse. In the event that a combat drone AI develops into something akin to Skynet or Ultron, then the amount of death and destruction it could bring is incalculable. These systems are already designed to kill. Advanced AI will just make them better at killing than any human will ever be.

It’s a worst-case scenario, but one we’ve managed to avoid with nuclear weapons. With advanced combat drones, the benefits might be even greater than no large-scale wars on the level of Word War II. In a world where advanced combat drones keep terrorists and militias from ever becoming too big a threat, the potential benefits could be unprecedented.

Human beings have been waging bloody, brutal wars for their entire history. Nuclear weapons may have made the cost of large wars too high, but combat drones powered by AI may finally make it obsolete.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, Current Events, futurism, technology

When Sex Is Divorced From Reproduction: The Possibilities And Implications

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Relatively speaking, it wasn’t that long ago in humanity’s history when finding food was a matter of survival. It wasn’t as simple as walking into the nearest grocery store and buying whatever was on sale. Individuals, governments, and societies dedicated a good chunk of their time and energy into securing a stable food source. Those who didn’t were usually the first victims of the next famine.

These days, getting a meal is less about survival and more about logistics. Thanks to major advances in agricultural science, including those of the late Norman Borlaug, we have so much abundant food that overeating is now a bigger problem than famine. Hunger is still a major issue for certain parts of the world, but it’s more a logistical issue than a resource issue.

Once food was divorced from famine and survival, it changed the way society approached it. Most people don’t even think about where they’re going to get their next meal. Their main concern is whether it’ll be a tasty meal.

With this critical need met, we can focus more time and energy on other matters. Even before science gave us abundant food, sex and reproduction was usually our second most pressing focus. It’s the other powerful drive that unites us all as a species. As a result, it’s subject to all sorts of taboos and has been central to multiple revolutions.

There’s no question that technology has impacted sexuality every bit as much as it impacted food production. Even advances unrelated to sex, especially anti-biotics, affected various attitudes and norms. However, even with these advances, sex maintains much of its primary function in that it’s still necessary for reproduction.

With that in mind, what happens when that’s no longer the case?

What happens to sex when it’s completely divorced from reproduction?

This isn’t another speculative thought experiment. This process is already unfolding. I would argue that it started on July 25, 1978 when the first baby was born from in vitro fertilization. Since then, over 8 million babies have been born through this technology. That is not a trivial number when we’re dealing with human lives.

Just take a step back to appreciate the implications of these lives. They were all conceived and birthed without sex. In centuries past, this was grounds for a miracle that could serve as a basis for a major religion. These days, it’s so routine that it never makes the news. Most people don’t think about it. It helps that these people are just as healthy and prosperous as those who were conceived with sex.

In the near future, this could change as well. Late last year, our technology went a step further beyond conceiving babies through in vitro fertilization with the birth of the first genetically edited babies in China. Now, it’s not just normal babies being born through this technology. Thanks to tools like CRISPR, children born without sex could be healthier and stronger than those conceived through sex.

Again, that is not a trivial detail. It’s one thing for technology to simply match a natural process, especially one as critical as human reproduction. Once it starts doing it better than nature, then that’s a huge paradigm shift. It might even be a point of no return. Having babies through sex is still a thing, but it’s no longer the most effective way to have healthy, strong children.

While this has generated plenty of controversy around topics like designer babies, there hasn’t been as much discussion about what this means for sex. If sex is no longer the primary method for reproduction, or the safest for that matter, what happens to our society? What happens to centuries of taboos, attitudes, traditions, and gender roles?

It’s difficult to speculate, but some have tried. In a recent article with the BBC, author Henry T. Greely laid out a general timeline. It doesn’t rely entirely on huge leaps in reproductive technology. It simply follows the trends that began with in vitro fertilization. In the interview, these are just a few thoughts he shared.

In 20 to 40 years, most people all over the world with good health coverage will choose to conceive in a lab. Like most things, there will be a fair amount of visceral negative reaction initially, but as time goes on and kids prove not to have two heads and a tail, the public will come not only to tolerate but to prefer reproducing non-sexually.

From a logistic and public health standpoint, this makes sense. Any healthy and prosperous society would want to promote the birth of healthy children in a manner that preserves the health of the mother. With technology like in vitro and CRISPR, it might very well be preferable because it means fewer diseases, lower health care costs, and fewer burdens on parents.

That doesn’t even begin to factor in the impact of more advanced reproductive technologies. With advances like artificial wombs in development, sex wouldn’t just be divorced from reproduction. Reproduction might not require any intimate connection whatsoever. At that point, sex for reproduction is akin to drinking unpasteurized milk.

Will people still have sex at that point? I believe they will. Unless we radically change our bodies all at once, the hardware for sex will still be present. The drive to do it will still be there as well, although some might opt to turn it off if that were an option. Regardless of any lingering attitudes and taboos, there’s no getting around it. Sex still feels good. It’s still a profoundly intimate act with many health benefits.

How people go about it will likely change. A great many taboos about sex stem from its role in reproduction. Much of the stigma surrounding promiscuity and traditional gender roles have a basis in highlighting the importance of sex in the propagation of our society and species. If are reckless about it, then that can spread disease, destabilize families, and create unhealthy environments for children.

Going back to the parallels with food, the same logic was once used to discourage gluttony. For much of human history, we had to be careful with how we consumed our food. If people consumed too much and were reckless with our eating habits, then they were ill-prepared for the next famine that inevitably came.

While sex and reproduction are still very different from consuming food, the influence of technology had a major impact on collective attitudes. We don’t look at people who overeat the same way we look at people who have lots of sex. Both may still draw scorn, but few will worry for the survival of the future of their community if a handful of people overeat.

At the moment, there are very real concerns surrounding falling birth rates and people having less sex than ever before. In some countries, the low birth rates are seen as an outright crisis that has also fueled ongoing debates surrounding immigration. Crisis or not, this situation is adding more urgency to the development of reproductive technologies. That, along with the decline in sex, could hasten this pending divorce.

Once it’s finalized, what form will sex take? It could simply become an act of intimacy or recreation. Humans might ultimately treat it the same way Bonobo monkeys treat it. It’s just an intimate activity that people do. Reproduction never even enters the conversation. People save that for when they want to design their baby.

It could also gain another purpose entirely. Maybe sex becomes less an act of intimacy and more an elaborate handshake, of sorts. It could be seen as a way of establishing trust or differentiating between casual acquaintances and close friends. In that world, friends with benefits are just friends. The benefits are implied by the friendship.

There’s also the very real possibility that people will just lose interest in sex. If there’s no reason to do it and it has no bearing on the growth of a society, then it just might be an afterthought. People might still do it, but those who do would be like the people who still have their own gardens in the backyard. It’s a quaint echo of our past that most have moved past.

These are possibilities. For now, there are no inevitabilities with respect to how we’ll approach sex once it’s no longer necessary for reproduction. It’ll likely be several decades before reproductive technology gets to a point where it’s preferable to sex, both for individuals and societies at large. Until then, this lengthy divorce is already at the early stages. It’s just a matter of how messy it’ll get in the coming years.

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Filed under biotechnology, CRISPR, futurism, gender issues, human nature, Marriage and Relationships, Second Sexual Revolution, sex in society, sexuality, Sexy Future, technology

Should Teenagers Be Allowed To Use Sex Robots?

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There are certain products and activities that society prohibits from teenagers. For the most part, there’s a reason behind that. Teenagers are young, inexperienced, and not mature enough to handle certain things. It’s not an insult, although I don’t blame any teenager for taking offense. It’s just an acknowledgement that most young minds aren’t ready to process the adult world.

That said, things get exceedingly tricky when sexuality enters the picture. Unlike smoking, drinking, or wanting to drive a car, sex is an innate desire that every teenager is wired to seek. You don’t need peer pressure, subversive advertising, or heavy metal music to make a teenager think about sex. Chances are they’re already thinking about it. For parents and teenagers alike, it makes for many awkward conversations.

Pictured are two people who do NOT want to have that conversation.

Thanks to the hormonal onslaught of puberty, a teenager’s sexuality is often in a state of chaos. They have thoughts, feelings, and desires they don’t entirely understand. Their bodies are changing and they’re just trying to keep up. On top of that, the most common refrain from parents and teachers is to repress all those feelings and shame anyone who doesn’t.

It’s an awkward situation, to say the least. I’m not a teenager or a parent, but I think most would agree there’s a lot of room for improvement. Improving comprehensive sex education, providing accurate information, and helping teenagers develop a mature understanding of sexuality will go a long way towards this effort. These are all things we can and should be doing now.

However, what happens once sex robots enter the picture?

It’s a serious question. While I’m sure it’ll elicit awkward laughter from some, I believe this issue is worth contemplating. As I’ve noted before, sex robots are coming. I know that’s a poor choice of words, but it’s true.

Some models are already available for purchase. While nobody will mistake them for actual people, the fact you can buy one today shows the market is there. Sex still sells and, like cell phones before it, the technology will improve. Even if we’re decades from something as lifelike as the model in “Ex Machina,” we’re not that far from something that provides realistic sexual experience.

While there will be plenty of adults who celebrate this technology, as well as a few who condemn it, what will it mean for teenagers? Will they be allowed to legally purchase sex robots? Even if they cannot purchase one, will they be allowed to use one? If not, then how will we go about policing it?

These are relevant questions and the answers don’t entirely depend on logistics. As I noted before, society prohibits teenagers from doing all sorts of activities. There are legitimate legal, social, and even medical reasons for these prohibitions. There are serious, long-term harms associated with teenagers who smoke and drink alcohol. For a healthy society, these prohibitions make sense.

With sex, it’s a lot trickier. While there is some research to indicate that viewing pornography affects teenage sexual behavior, it’s not as conclusive as the harms of drug addiction. Some of those harms have more to do with stigma and poor sexual education than the content itself. Once sex robots enter the equation, though, things get even more complicated.

Porn, for all its quirks and kinks, is a fantasy on a computer screen. A sex robot is a tangible, human-like figure that people can interact with. On top of that, if the robot has a human-like measure of intelligence, it can also provide a realistic sexual experience that the user can share. Robot or not, this experience can be as intimate and satisfying as anything someone might experience in their personal life.

For teenagers, as well as their parents and teachers, this creates both opportunities and risks. Let’s say, for instance, that sex robots are legally accessible for any teenager who wants one. These robots look and feel like any other person. They have a measure of intelligence that allows them to interact and form healthy, beneficial relationships with teenagers.

In this environment, every teenager has a sexual outlet, no matter how awkward or unattractive. They have a sex robot who can provide them companionship, teach them about their sexuality, and even help them learn what they want in an intimate partner. Maybe they even help teenagers struggling with their sexual orientation gain a better understanding of who they are.

Since these are robots, the risks of pregnancy and disease is not an issue. If these robots are sufficiently intelligent, they’ll be capable of guiding teenagers through their sexual maturation, regardless of gender, orientation, or disposition. Instead of hearing some teacher or parent just lecture them on all these awkward issues, they have a chance to experience it first-hand.

For parents, I imagine I’ll still be distressing to think about their teenage son or daughter having sex of any kind. Whether it’s with a person or a robot, it’s going to cause plenty of stress. That’s unavoidable, no matter how much the technology matures. At the same time, sex robots could ultimately be the safest and most satisfying way for a teenager to learn about their sexuality.

The ultimate sex ed teacher.

All that said, there are risks. In a perfect world, sex robots would ensure that every teenager navigates their adolescence with the benefit of a fulfilling, mature understanding of sexuality. Everyone from the most attractive athlete in high school to the ugliest kid in neighborhood enjoys intimate, satisfying experiences through these sex robots. Sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world.

There’s certainly a chance that sex robots could lead to potential harm, which would only be compounded for teenagers. In some situations, sex robots could cause certain individuals to dissociate themselves from other flesh-and-blood people. They may ultimately prefer the company of their sex robot over anyone else, including close friends and family.

This could lead to an entire generation of men and women who reject relationships with non-robot partners, intimate or otherwise. They would see sex with other people as this needlessly complicated, needlessly risky endeavor that offers few benefits. Beyond stagnating the population more than it already is, it could make people more distant from one another than they already are.

On top of that, there could be issues with the sex robots themselves. Ideally, every sex robot would be calibrated to foster healthy attitudes towards sex, intimacy, and relationships. Since computers are rarely perfect and prone to glitching, it’s a given that a sex robot will malfunction at some point. What will that do to the teenager who uses it?

In that case, a faulty sex robot fosters some very unhealthy attitudes in a young, impressionable user. If it’s not caught in time, this person could grow into someone with a very skewed understanding of sexuality. That already happens today with teenagers who are poorly educated on sex. With sex robots, the problems could escalate quickly.

Then, there are the parents, teachers, and authority figures themselves. This is one aspect of sex robots that might be the most difficult to contemplate. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where the adults of the world decide that teenagers shouldn’t use sex robots for the same reason they shouldn’t smoke cigarettes. That may just be the path of least resistance at first.

Where would you put the warning label?

At the same time, it’ll be adults who program, sell, and regulate sex robots. Who’s to say that they’ll do so in a way that has the best interests of teenagers in mind? If anything, people will be more tempted to use sex robots to exert a measure of control over teenagers that even more powerful than controlling their cell phone.

Perhaps parents in religious communities configure sex robots specifically designed to mold their teenagers’ sexuality to their liking. That means anything that may involve homosexuality or bisexuality would be strongly discouraged, shamed, or conditioned. The harm that would do to a teenager is difficult to quantify, although we do have some clues.

There could also be parents who don’t have healthy attitudes about sexuality themselves. Perhaps parents in abusive relationships program a sex robot to reinforce those relationships to their children. From their perspective, they’re not trying to harm or mold their teenager’s sexuality. They’re just conveying what they think is normal.

The (possible) future of normal.

There are probably plenty more risky scenarios I could contemplate. I’m sure those reading this have already imagined a few that I cannot put into words. Whatever the possibilities, the question remains. Teenagers are already thinking about sex. In every generation in every time period, part of being a teenager means contemplating sexuality and dealing with sexual urges.

It’s impossible to overstate just how impactful sex robots will be to society, sexuality, and how people relate to one another in general. Like it or not, teenagers will be affected. Sex robots can certainly do plenty of good. For some, they may be therapeutic. For others, they’ll be disruptive. For teenagers, it could be all of that and then some.

It’s difficult to say, at this point. It’s even harder to determine whether permitting teenagers to use sex robots will do more harm than good. One way or another, teenagers will continue thinking about sex and it’s still going to be awkward for them. No amount of technology will ever change that.

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Why Designer Babies Are NOT The Same As Eugenics

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As much as I celebrate advances in science and technology, I don’t deny there are instances where some advances it leads to unintended consequences. I’m sure the inventor of ski masks knows that all too well. In many cases, these missteps and mishaps are part of the ongoing challenge to use these advances responsibly. It’s akin to a maturation process that is often difficult, but still necessary.

In some cases, however, certain advances bring out some of humanity’s ugliest traits. Whether it’s a tool or an insight into the natural world, certain people who may or may not be malicious will use science to further a nefarious agenda. Of all the sciences that brought out the worst in humanity, eugenics is probably the most well-known.

The concept, itself, is not entirely abhorrent. If you look up the definition, this is what comes up.

The practice or advocacy of controlled selective breeding of human populations to improve the population’s genetic composition.

On paper, that has some objective merit. The world is a chaotic, dangerous place that’s constantly changing. In some cases, humanity is causing that change. If we’re to survive on a planet in which 99 percent of the species that have ever lived have gone extinct, it makes sense to improve our collective genetics so that we’re best equipped to survive.

Unfortunately, the details surrounding eugenics were permanently tainted when it became the preferred excuse for atrocities by the Nazis. Even before that, it was a popular talking point among racists seeking to marginalize or outright exterminate the impact of certain minorities within a society. At one point, there were organizations dedicated to promoting eugenics through forced sterilization and miscegenation laws.

The legacy of eugenics is so ugly that it’s almost synonymous with some of the worst acts of bigotry ever committed. When people think of eugenics, they don’t think of advancing human biology to make it more robust. They imagine racist tyrants forcibly sterilizing undesirable minorities in the hopes that they eventually die out in a silent genocide.

There’s no question that this form of eugenics is abhorrent. The way it was practiced throughout the 20th century was a perversion of science and technology. We would be wise to remember that as we make bigger and bolder advancements in science, especially for those related to biotechnology.

It’s here where the ugly legacy of eugenics seems destined to clash with science once more. In late 2018, news broke of a groundbreaking advance in biotechnology when a scientist named He Jiankui announced that the first genetically modified humans had been born. I went out of my way to note why this is a huge deal in the history of our species, but it’s also sparking distressing concerns related to eugenics.

Thanks to gene-editing tools like CRISPR, it’s now possible to edit the human genome with the same ease as copying and pasting text from a website. That has sparked concerns that it will be used to purge certain undesirables from the human population, just as was attempted with eugenics.

Logistically, there’s no reason why tools like CRISPR couldn’t be used to edit the genome of every child before they’re born to ensure they look a certain way. Granted, it would require some fairly invasive policies, but that has never stopped ambitious governments in the past. As these tools are refined, it’ll only get easier to pursue the kinds of racist policies that deplorable bigots in the past once favored.

However, this is not a fair association, nor is it constructive in addressing the legitimate issues surrounding the use of CRISPR and so-called designer babies. Linking this technology to eugenics is akin to blaming every nuclear physicist for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s not just because the potential of this technology is so great. The intent behind it differs considerably with that of eugenics.

That intent shows in the specifics of the first two genetically modified children. These children were not born out of a desire for racial superiority. The modifications made to their genome was intended to make them more resistant to HIV/AIDS infection. That’s an objective good. Healthier babies who are more resistant to disease is a benefit to our species, as a whole.

In addition, this feat was achieved without sterilizing someone against their will or without the consent of the parents. While there were some legitimate ethical concerns, the underlying purpose has little to do with furthering racial goals and more to do with combating disease and suffering. This is where the difference between eugenics and designer babies at its most stark.

Eugenics, historically speaking, was almost always pursued with a racial agenda. It never stopped at just treating disease. Its advocates sought more than just health. They sought superiority. That’s not how the emerging technology surrounding CRISPR is being used. It’s following a similar path to that of in-vitro fertilization, which was subject to plenty of controversy as well.

Like any technology, there are going to be legitimate concerns mixed in with the doomsayers. With CRISPR and designer babies, the concerns will be greater because the stakes will be higher. We’re not just talking about a technology that will reduce the risk of inherited diseases. This technology could fundamentally change the human race in a very literal sense.

Designer babies, much like their in vitro counterparts, will be part of that change. Regardless of how someone feels about endowing a baby with the genetics of Tom Brady and Stephen Hawking, the potential for good is just too vast. Thousands of people die every year because of diseases that are written into their genes. This technology, if properly refined, could render such suffering a distant memory.

Hesitating with this technology because of potential links to eugenics will only prolong this suffering. In the same way countless individuals wouldn’t be alive without in-vitro fertilization, there are countless people who aren’t alive now because this technology wasn’t available to help them.

Treating diseases and ensuring the health of the next generation is a common good that eugenics corrupted with racist ideology. It attempted to do that by using science and technology to more effectively oppress their chosen enemies. That is radically different than editing the genes of a child so they don’t succumb to certain diseases.

That’s not to say there aren’t risks. At some point, someone will try to abuse this technology and it’s likely that person will have unpopular views on eugenics. There will also be a point where this technology isn’t just used to treat diseases. It will also be used to implement traits and abilities within people that aren’t possible by natural means.

The look of a baby who never has to worry about genetic diseases.

The merits and ethics of such genetic tampering are definitely worth discussing, but references to eugenics will only serve to derail that discussion for all the wrong reasons. Like it or not, humans will need to keep adapting and growing in our chaotic world. If we ever hope to outlast our planet and even our sun, we can’t be bound by genetic constraints or outdated attitudes.

That makes developing genetics technology all the more vital. Eugenics was a bad ideology that hijacked a lot of good science. Whatever your opinion may be on designer babies and improving the human genome, the technology is here. Children born of this technology have arrived. The benefits are vast, provided we have the right approach.

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When Aliens Invade The Best, Worst, And Most Likely Scenario

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It’s a common, but appealing theme in science fiction. One day, we think we’re alone in the universe. The next, aliens invade and our species is never the same. Whether it sparks a war for survival like in “Independence Day” or leads to a new era of inter-stellar cooperation like in “Mass Effect,” it’s a profound moment. It may be the one case in which our collective imagination is too limited to appreciate the implications.

The concept of first contact is daunting enough. Just discovering extraterrestrial life in the universe would be groundbreaking. Making contact with it would be downright overwhelming for our species. It might be the closest thing human beings ever get to a true religious experience, making contact with another species from the stars.

An invasion, however, carries with it a special kind of impact, albeit a traumatic kind. Science fiction tells all sorts of stories about it, but chances are that the real-world possibilities don’t come close to the fantasy we all envision. Whether it’s triumph after a stirring speech from President Whitmore or doom at the hands of Martian invaders, the truth probably somewhere in between.

I’ve argued before that the human race isn’t ready for contact with aliens, but we’re close. I also believe that if extraterrestrial aliens ever do arrive, they won’t be hostile invaders. If they’re advanced enough to travel the vast distance of the cosmos, then they’re advanced enough to not need anything here on Earth. There’s abundant water, minerals, and rare elements throughout space that are fare easier to obtain.

However, that all assumes that an extraterrestrial species would act in accord with incentives that most humans understand. That could be a flawed assumption. If an extraterrestrial species is truly alien, then their thoughts, feelings, and motivations could be alien too. It’s not impossible that a species would evolve to be inherently hostile to any other sentient life.

With that in mind, I’d like to present a few potential scenarios on how an alien invasion would play out for humanity. I believe there are a few instances in which our species would survive and even be stronger. There are also a few in which our hopes of survival are effectively zero. I don’t claim that any of these are definitive. This is just my attempt to speculate on how an invasion would pan out for humanity.


Worst Case Scenario: Aliens See Humans As Cockroaches

This is the scenario that movies like “Independence Day” or “Predator” often utilize. The invading aliens are advanced, capable of technology that traverses interstellar space with ease. They arrive on Earth, seeing its resources as ripe for the taking. They invade, seeing humans as nothing more than annoying insects. They deal with them the same way we deal with ants.

While those movies often build stories around human beings finding a way to win the day, either by discovering a hidden weakness or somehow hacking alien computers, it’s doubtful that this is how it would play out. If an alien species is hostile and they have access to technology so advanced that it might as well be magic to lesser species, then we have no chance.

In this scenario, there’s nothing humanity can do to fight back. The President Whitmores of the world could give all the inspiring speeches they want. We wouldn’t have a chance against these creatures. We would be like mosquitoes trying to stop an oncoming nuclear missile. We wouldn’t have a chance and at most, we would just annoy the aliens.

In some cases, humanity could survive by simply avoiding the aliens and live underground in hopes that they’ll eventually leave. If the invaders are intent on turning Earth into a base or strip-mining it entirely, then that’s just delaying the inevitable.

In other cases, the invading aliens could see humanity as lab rats or pets. The only reason they would keep some humans alive would be as resources. On many levels, it would be even worse than slavery because the aliens wouldn’t even value anything we could do. They would just value our flesh the same way we might value a mineral.

One way or another, humans don’t survive this invasion. We either get wiped out with ease or turned into glorified pets for aliens. It’s the one alien contact scenario we would want to avoid and one that the late Stephen Hawking dreaded the most. While I think it’s unlikely that we’ll encounter intelligent aliens this hostile, I don’t deny that it’s still a frightening possibility.


Best Case Scenario: Inept And Incompetent Invaders

This is something a lot of common sci-fi tropes rely on. You have a race of aliens advanced enough to master inter-stellar travel, but incompetent enough to lose a war against a bunch of hairless apes who kill each other over what they think happens when they die. Essentially, any story in which humanity defeats invading aliens has to rely on this.

While there are plenty of absurdities inherent in those stories, it’s not impossible to imagine an invading alien race that’s incompetent. We assume that any advanced alien race that can travel across interstellar space has to be competent to some extent. However, just because they can travel across the stars doesn’t mean they’ll be effective invaders.

The best example of this, in my opinion, comes from a series of novels by Harry Turtledove entitled “Worldwar.” In the story, an alien race invades Earth in the middle of World War II. However, the aliens in this story aren’t some unkillable monstrosities like the Xenomorphs. They’re a race of reptilian creatures who just made some false assumptions.

In the novels, which I highly recommend, the aliens advance at a much slower pace than humanity. What takes us 100 years to produce technologically takes them 1,000. When they first observed Earth, we were in medieval times. They assumed that humans advanced at a similar rate and would be push-overs by the time their fleet arrived. They were dead wrong.

If humanity ever has to deal with an alien invasion, these are the kinds of invaders we should hope for. It’s not just that they make false assumptions and grossly underestimate other species. An invasion by inept aliens means humanity has a fighting chance.

While it may still make for a bloody and brutal war, like the one that unfolds in the “Worldwar” series, that war may ultimately unite the human race in ways that would not be possible in any other scenario. Former President Ronald Reagan even pointed this out in a famous speech to the UN and I think he’s right.

Humanity has never had a singular existential threat that would require every race, ethnic group, and nation to unite. For our entire history, we’ve never had to deal with an advanced species trying to wipe us out. Having that threat means we have to work together or die. No matter how much humans disagree over trivial things, survival tends to overrule petty grievances.

In the long run, that kind of unity might help the human race come together in a way we can’t imagine, given our current state of disunity. As bad as a war against alien invaders can be, it could bring out the best in us if we have a fighting chance. Unfortunately, that chance is contingent on the invaders being incompetent and I think that’s hoping for too much.


Most Likely Scenario: Aliens Invaders Are Indifferent To Humanity

Of all the invasion scenarios, both in fiction and those with a passing connection to reality, I think this is the most likely. Again, it assumes that invading aliens are competent enough to get what they want, regardless of whether or not the human race wants it. If their technology is sufficiently advanced, it won’t matter what humanity wants.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that aliens see humans as bugs that need exterminating. It’s far more likely that they’ll see humans the same way drivers see an ant hill on the side of a major highway. They’ll barely notice. They might not even realize we’re there and we, in turn, might be completely oblivious to them.

Even if Earth has some resource that invading aliens want, it makes more sense to just take it without humans noticing. That way they don’t have to fight a war. It’s not that they couldn’t win that war with ease. It would just be exceedingly inconvenient. It would be like blowing up a dam just to water your garden.

For all we know, this has already happened. There may have been multiple occasions where intelligent aliens have passed by our planet, dropped in, and taken some resources without anyone knowing. Given how humans have only existed on this planet for a small fraction of its history, it’s entirely possible that advanced aliens have already visited and determined there’s nothing worth seeing.

Even if they did arrive at a time when humans were present, they would be plenty advanced to either evade detection or fool anyone they came across. The human brain is easy to trick, especially if aliens have some sort of cloaking technology or can shape-shift like the Skrulls in Marvel Comics. Deceiving people, even in today’s connected world, wouldn’t be too tricky for them.

If the aliens just want something minor that doesn’t require exterminating all life on Earth, it makes more sense to just slip in and take it. The only reason invading aliens would ever be hostile in this scenario is if humans got in their way or created an obstacle, of sorts. In that case, it wouldn’t entirely be the fault of the aliens for attacking.

I think this is most likely because I believe, in our current form, humans haven’t done enough to really make themselves worthy of contact with intelligent aliens. Sure, we have a space program and we’ve created world-ending technology, but we haven’t shown an ability to affect much beyond our own planet. I think until that changes, any advanced alien civilization wouldn’t have much interest in us.

That’s still assumes a lot about the intentions of advanced alien life, which can certainly be wrong. However, until we actually meet alien life, we won’t know what to expect. There are plenty of possibilities in which such contact would benefit the human race immensely, but there are far more possibilities in which that event goes horribly wrong.

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How Humanity Will Cure Death

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When it comes to pushing the limits of technology, every goal once started as a fantasy. In the 19th century, the smartest minds of the time thought heavier-than-air flying machines were infeasible at best and impossible at worst. In the early 20th century, other people with legitimate scientific credentials said the same thing about a manned mission to the moon.

While it seems absurd today, at the time it made sense. The people of that era just couldn’t imagine technology advancing to a point where humanity regularly achieved feats that had once been relegated to science fiction. It’s easy it mock them with the benefit of hindsight, but there are plenty of smart people today who have made claims that will be mocked 50 years from now.

One claim that most individuals, including those who work at the forefront of science and research, is that we will never cure death. Science is certainly capable of doing a great deal, but death is one of those immutable barriers that it can never overcome.

We may be able to cure all infectious disease through biotechnology and genetic engineering. We may one day have technology that allows our bodies to become so durable that from the perspective of people alive today, they’ll be superhuman. They may even live for centuries, but never age past 30. Nothing other than a freak accident could kill them. I’ve already noted the potential issues with that.

However, even these highly-enhanced humans will eventually die at some point. That seems like a given. Efforts to avoid it are often subject to heavy criticism, especially approaches like cryonics or uploading your mind into a computer. While some of those criticisms are valid, they’re also short-sighted. They work under the same assumption as those who claimed humans would never walk on the moon.

Technology has limits, but humans have a bad track record with respect to understanding those limits. With respect to curing death, even the most advanced fields of emerging technology seem limited in their ability to help people escape such a fate. That doesn’t mean the concept is flawed. It doesn’t even mean that the technology is beyond the laws of physics.

Personally, I believe death can be cured, but not with approaches like cryonics or bodily enhancements. While those technologies may ultimately extend our lives, being able to transcend death requires another approach. Specifically, it requires a mechanism for preserving, transforming, and transferring the contents of our brains.

Medically speaking, the official definition of death is the irreparable cessation of all brain activity. Your body can be damaged. Every other organ could fail. Your brain is the last link in that chain. It contains your memories, your emotions, your personality, and your capacity to experience the world. To cure death, we simply need to preserve the brain and all its functions.

That’s much harder than it sounds, but it’s not physically impossible. The human brain is not made up of some mythical, exotic material. It’s made up of specialized cells and tissues, like any other organ. While we don’t entirely understand the workings of the brain, it operates using physical matter that is bound by the laws of physics and biology.

Those limits are the key and the mechanism for preserving that complex clump of biomatter already exists, both as a concept and in a very unrefined form. That technology involves nanobots and if there’s one technology that has the potential to make humans truly immortal, it’s this.

The concept of nanobots is already a common staple of science fiction, but it’s primarily used as the technological equivalent of a wizard’s spell. If you need something or someone to do the impossible without resorting to magic, just throw nanobots or nanites, as they’re often called, into the story and let the impossible seem mundane.

While it’s doubtful that nanobots can do everything that science fiction claims, there’s a good chance that they’ll come pretty close. It’s impossible to overstate the potential of nanorobotics. From mass-producing any kind of good to curing humans of all infectious disease, nanobots have the potential to literally and figuratively change our lives, our bodies, and our world.

At the moment, we only have crude prototypes. In time, though, nanobots could become something akin to programmable matter and, by default, programmable flesh. Technically speaking, a nanobot could be programmed to do whatever a typical brain cell does, but more efficiently.

In the late 90s, scientists like Robert Freitas Jr. envisioned nanobots called respirocytes, which functioned like artificial blood cells. In theory, these would be far more effective at getting air and nutrients to the rest of your body, so much so that you could hold your breath for hours or sprint indefinitely.

That’s all well and good for deep sea diving and Olympic sprinters, but for curing death, the concept needs to go even further. That means creating nanobots that mimic the same function as a neuron, but with more efficiency and durability. Create enough of those and you’ve got the exact same hardware and functionality as the brain, but with the utility of a machine.

Once we have that technology refined and perfected, we have everything we need to effectively cure death. Doing so means gradually replacing every neuron in our skulls with a more efficient, more durable nanobot that does everything that neuron did, and then some. The most important additional feature these nanobots would have is a measure of intelligence that could be programmed.

By being programmable, the nanobots in our skulls would be more plastic. It would be less an organ and more a synthetic substrate, of sorts. It could be drained into a container, implanted into a robot specifically designed to contain it, or just preserved indefinitely in the event that there are no bodies available, not unlike the systems used in, “Altered Carbon.”

To some, this still doesn’t count because it requires that every cell in our brains be replaced with something. Technically, that brain wouldn’t be yours and you might not even be use, as a result. I respectfully disagree with this criticism, primarily because it ignores the whole Ship of Theseus argument.

If you’re not familiar with this concept, it’s pretty simple, but the implications are profound. It starts with a real, actual ship used by the mythical hero, Theseus. If, at one point, you replace a piece of wood in that ship, it’s still the same ship. However, the more pieces you replace, the less of the original ship you have. Eventually, if you replace all pieces, is it the same ship?

The human brain, or any organ in your body, is an extreme version of that thought experiment. The brain cells can replicate, but it’s a slower process compared to most cells and the configurations are always changing. The way your brain is wired now is changing as you read this sentence. A cluster of nanobots doing the same thing won’t be any different.

Like the Ship of Theseus, it wouldn’t happen all at once. In principle, the brain cell doesn’t even get destroyed. It just gets subsumed by the mechanizations of the nanobot. How it goes about this is hard to determine, but there’s nothing in the laws of physics that prohibit it. At the molecular level, it’s just one set of atoms replacing another.

Once in place, though, the limits of biology go out the window. With programmable nanobots, a person doesn’t just have the same functionality as a biological brain. It’s has other functions that allow for easier programming. We could, in theory, supplement the nanobots with additional material, sort of like cloud computing. It could even create a neurobiological backup of your brain that could be kept in stasis.

At that point, death is effectively cured. Once your brain becomes a substrate of nanobots, you can just transfer it into a body, a robot, or some other containment vessel that allows it to experience the world in any way desired. If, by chance, that body and the substrate are destroyed or damaged, then the backup kicks in and it’ll be like you just jumped from one place to another.

Some of this relies on an improved understanding of how consciousness works and assumes that it could be somehow transferred, expanded, or transmitted in some way. That may very well be flawed. It may turn out to be the case that, even if you turn your brain into a glob of nanobots, you can’t transmit your consciousness beyond it. If it gets destroyed, you die.

There’s a lot we currently don’t understand about the mechanisms of consciousness, let alone our ability to manipulate those mechanisms. However, a lack of understanding doesn’t negate the possibilities. Our previous inability to understand disease didn’t prevent our ancestors’ ability to treat it to some extent.

If it is the case that we cannot transmit consciousness from our brains, then we can still craft a functional cure for death. It just requires that we put our brains in protective vats from which carry out our existence in a simulated world. Those vats could be protected in a massive artificial planet that’s powered by a black hole or neutron star. In theory, our brains would be preserved until the heat death of the universe.

Whatever the limitations, the technology and the concepts are already in place, if only on paper. It’s difficult to know whether anyone alive today will live long enough to see an advancement like this. Then again, the children alive in 1900 probably didn’t think they would live to see a man walk on the moon.

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