Sentience and Circuitry: Meat is Memory

by Mac Tonnies

We are carbon-based lifeforms evolved to function on a rocky, water-covered planet circling a very average star in a very average galaxy.

As such, we spend the vast majority of our lives engaged in self-maintenance of various sorts; we are frail and temperamental creatures constantly at war with entropy, and our species' answer to our physical dilemma is to pass along our genes to future generations of flesh-and-blood human beings. Our biological imperative to reproduce is all-invasive.

Most of us follow our biological programming willingly enough, never seeking or perceiving alternatives. Most of these people are dead. But as new technologies and new ways of relating with our universe are explored and exploited, various forms of immortality appear less like impossibilities and more like evolutionary inevitabilities.

The world we've created for ourselves is a shadow of our reproductive imperative, and our institutions are symptomatic of our devotion to our short-lived physical selves. The activities of a typical day betray our dedication to maintaining reproductive viability. But the chemical phenomenon that gives the single-celled amoeba its raison d'etre seems somehow less-than-noble for a species that has evolved the singular and promising faculties of foresight and imagination.

I think the human species is approaching a point where the need to create (in the biological sense) will be superseded by the sheer pleasure of thought itself. We will continue to be creators. But our slavish attachment to the physical world and all of its superficial excess will be left behind as we plunge forward, breaking down the perceived barriers between mind and brain, thought and flesh, sentience and circuitry.

The advent of artificial intelligence will likely result in a mentational revolution of exponential magnitude. The future doesn't bode well for carbon as a medium for information transfer. Why subject ourselves to the uncertainties of biological reproduction when we're empowered with bodies and minds attuned to precise personal specifications?

As the human race migrates to custom-engineered realities, the definitions that now serve to separate "tool" from "user" will become increasingly meaningless. When the fragile meat-matrix of contemporary carbon-based humanity is abandoned in favor of lush new frontiers of our own devising, the genetic code (and its inherent instabilities and weaknesses) will fade into obsolescence, as all primitive devices eventually do. If we use DNA at all, it will be to truly create, the biological world our obedient and abiding molecular canvas.

A race of individuals existing as matrices as pure information will have neither time nor interest for the energy-intensive and messy ritual of existing as flesh-and-blood human beings. Instead of ceaselessly "upgrading" ourselves with vitamin supplements, cosmetic surgery, extra-strength fluoride toothpaste, vitamin-enriched shampoo, preventive medicine and arbitrary "designer" fashions, our posthuman descendents will be free to exist on their own terms.

Reproduction, per se, may never become obsolete, but at least we will no longer be at the mercy of its evolutionary mandates. Aesthetics and the definition of pleasure will necessarily adapt to our own caprices and augmented cognitive abilities. We will have all the time we need to shape and expand our horizons, ultimately viewing natural selection and the accepted inevitability of death as perverse historical curiosities, much how we presently regard the institution of slavery with loathing.

As I write this, I'm running a variety of "software" on three-pounds of wrinkled meat called a "brain." As Kurt Vonnegut has observed, this biological computer might make a satisfactory breakfast for a hungry canine. But it's not the meatware in my skull I value; it's the contents--the wetwired arsenal of facts and "applications"--that I truly appreciate.

Intelligence is not a phenomenon. It's an information-impregnated pattern, as reproducible in its own way as a photocopy or the unruly lines that divide a shag carpeting. There is no reason my self-pattern cannot be synthesized, reconstituted, modified, relayed through space in the form of modulated radio waves or laser pulses, hacked, distributed as freeware to denizens of some future Internet, or uploaded to artificial bodies that may or may not resemble my present meatware incarnation.

Electronic communications activists proclaim that "information wants to be free."

So do I.

I speak from experience.

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