Neither the future nor science fiction should frighten us. Both may raise questions; any lack of preparedness to face them is where fear should lie. Given that we pride ourselves on our intellect relative to every other form of life on the planet – what is there actually to fear?
One of humanity’s greatest powers, with due respect to the domestication of fire and the worthy and opposable thumb, is our capacity to craft definitions. We apply this ability even to ourselves. How we define ourselves is, in fact, one of our obsessions.
In terms of sci fi there are two forces that potentially imperil our comforting view of we humans: augmentation – either by prosthetic or genetic means. During the mid- to late 1980s the first of these defined a large part of cyberpunk fiction and gaming. Robots and cyborgs, however, are older concepts.
Hephaestus in Greek mythology and Ilmarinen of Finnish folklore are both said to have created artificial people. In the first case, these inventions were vessels for some of the aspects humans celebrate about themselves – most notably intellect and wisdom. The Scandinavian example presents a being deficient in what we seek from others. Most fictional androids fall into this latter category and that reflects our concern in defending our definition of being human.
There are nervous jokes made about potential robot overlords. Artificial intelligence is very rarely portrayed as anything but a cause for suspicion. Genetic engineering does not fare better and there are more examples from history to explain why. The idea of using an understanding of DNA to improve humanity is about a century old. Within a generation of the suggestion eugenics earned a bad name. It still summons overlords of a different sort and often paints the consequences as grim. Even basic cloning gives some qualms.
We want to be better creatures and we’re impatient with evolution. At the same time we’re afraid of what may result from taking shortcuts. Cyberpunk, the roleplaying game by R. Talsorian Games, warned of cyberpsychosis and marked the upper limit for augmentation by a loss of Humanity Points. Arthur C. Clarke warned us in 2001 (technically beginning in 1948 and revisited twenty years later) that AI can go dangerously, artificially insane far faster than any biological mind.
About two months ago, I asked a number of friends what aspects of animal DNA they would want woven into their own genetic code. In science fiction terms this is part of what’s known as wetware. The answers boil down to a few categories.
Improve what works well. A more efficient metabolism and better respiration system would be key examples. The most preferred feature from this set was the regeneration of lost limbs and damaged organs.
Increase what is not adequate. The wish to be stronger, faster, and more durable is not exclusive to professional athletes. Many answers here pertained to making our sense of sight far better than it is now, up to and including the ability to see infrared and ultraviolet light. None of the other four faculties called to mind by the word “sense” were among the answers although both proprioception and equilibrium were found to be a bit lacking.
Add cool new features. Without any apparent concern for sensory overload, some would like to sense electric fields, as can sharks and bees. The core of what it means to be a homing pigeon (and to any human who doesn’t want to rely on maps or GPS) depends on magnetoreception and this was also a desired acquisition.
Establish a better perimeter. The chameleon’s talent for camouflage, the signature of the electric eel, and all venomous/poisonous creatures were also envied along with claws and fangs.
It seems odd that no one mentioned immunity to toxins or disease. Also absent was mention of the immortal jellyfish (Turritopsis dohrnii). And, while plants were left out of the initial question, no one went outside the envelope to suggest something from that kingdom.
Cyberpunk’s Chromebook series offered about 400 pages of comparable features and benefits from the technology-based potential sources of human modification.
In another century, we would probably recognize humans by our definition of the species and culture. That’s only five generations from now — the great great grandchildren of Jane and John Q. Public. People from one millennium past are, all things considered, not that different from us. Would cyber- and/or wetware actually change the contents or just the packing material?
Until innovation extends a lifespan along with the capacity to find an answer, I’ll offer this with hope: We may define ourselves as human so long as we remember to do so.