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What does the future hold? In our new series Imagining the Next Future, Polygon explores the new era of science fiction in movies, books, TV, games, and beyond to see how storytellers and innovators are imagining the next 10, 20, 50, or 100 years during a moment of extreme uncertainty. Follow along as we deep dive into the great unknown.
Science fiction is in a constant state of flux, and coming up with a solidified canon is something that will vary from person to person. Certainly, there are classics throughout the genre, books that stand far apart from their peers, like Frank Herberts Dune, Robert Heinleins Starship Troopers, or Ursula K. Le Guins The Left Hand of Darkness. These books are legendary not only for providing readers with much to think about, but also impacting the writers that follow them, influencing subject matter, technique, perspective.
The last 15 years have provided plenty of fodder for science fiction authors, and looking back, its clear that science fiction is in a period of transition: there are more people writing stories than ever before, from every type of background and on a variety of new platforms that didnt exist before. And amidst that transition, there have been plenty of novels that have broken through and changed how science fiction looks.
The following 14 books are some of the most consequential and groundbreaking stories that have hit bookstores or bookshelves in that time: books that forever altered the genre in a number of ways by changing the conventions or tropes that authors traditionally used, blazed forward a path or popularized some new thing, or which have proven to be wildly popular with readers around the world.
First contact between humanity and an extraterrestrial civilization are a cornerstone of science fiction, ranging from aliens with funny noses to the genuinely alien. Peter Watts novel Blindsight stars after the planet is bombarded by a strange cluster of objects that release a single broadcast before going dark. When scientists receive another transmission from a comet outside of the solar system, they dispatch an expedition composed of five trans-human specialists, including a vampire.
What they discover is indeed alien: a sort of hive-mind intelligence thats part of a much larger diaspora. Where many science fiction adventures deal with humanitys introduction to a galactic civilization in which we become an equal partner/citizen, Watts posits something far stranger: interstellar intelligence thats genuinely alien, and to which humanity is providing to be a major nuisance and threat. Its a groundbreaking novel that helped break authors away from human analogs and into more stranger, introspective territory about our place in the cosmos.
Related books: The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu, Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, Embassytown by China Mieville
Adult and YA science fiction are often marketed to very different audiences, with both sides looking down on the other. Its a nonsensical barrier, and Suzanne Collins book The Hunger Games is a good demonstration that the YA designation doesnt necessarily mean that an author is talking down to its audience.
Set in a dystopic future where the United States has collapsed and been replaced with Panem, children are selected for a brutal competition every ten years from each of the countrys twelve districts, in which they fight to the death, as punishment for a failed revolution.
Collins book deals with pressing issues of brutality and trauma, as well as wealth inequality, poverty, and revolution. With its release in 2008, the book became a major bestseller and media franchise, and unleashed a floodgate of dystopian-themed YA novels that explored the darker parts of modern society.
Related books: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, The Maze Runner by James Dashner, Divergent by Veronica Roth
Between major hurricanes, widespread wildfires, and a global temperature that keeps rising, climate change is at the forefront of the publics consciousness in the last decade. While the issue was certainly settled in 2009, Paolo Bacigalupis The Windup Girl was a breakthrough for science fiction by putting a world with a drastically changed climate front and center.
Set in a world where oil is no longer a thing and where mega agricorps control the worlds food supply with genetically modified crops, Bacigalupis story is set in a futuristic Thailand thats managed to stave off environmental apocalypse: because the country has been able to keep outsiders out, its avoided crop failures and famine. That success however, comes with problems: Agents from some of those agricorps are working to get their hands on the countrys seedbank to solve some of their problems, while a genetically-modified woman tries to escape sexual slavery as war looms.
Climate change is a subject thats ripe for fiction, but Bacigalupi goes beyond mere disaster porn with this novel. The Windup Girl looks at how rampant capitalism and its associated abuses underpins the climate disaster.
Related books: Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins, New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Robotics and science fiction are synonymous (2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the term), and over the years, weve seen authors approach the field ranging from benevolent servants (C-3P0 or Robbie from Isaac Asimovs I, Robot), to cooly malevolent (Hal, from 2001: A Space Odyssey.)
As robotics and artificial intelligence has advanced in recent years, so too have the stories that weve told about them. One of the most intriguing reads about artificial intelligence is Linda Nagatas The Red, a military thriller set in the near future. The story follows Lieutenant James Shelley, a soldier whos part of a cybernetically enhanced unit, and who has a knack for getting out of trouble thanks to a voice in his head.
That voice turns out to be a massive, distributed artificial intelligence thats emerged amidst the worlds myriad of systems, and it uses soldiers like Shelley to carry out its plans, particularly when it comes to imminent threats to human civilization, like nuclear warheads. Nagatas vision for artificial intelligence is scary and realistic a powerful, unknowable force that has the potential to shape our lives in ways that we dont expect, and its a very different take on the types of robots and artificial intelligences that have come before it.
Related books: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz, Sourdough by Robin Sloan, Burn-In by August Cole / P.W. Singer, The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
When Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck writing jointly as James S.A. Corey began a new space-opera novel, friends advised them to focus on epic fantasy instead. Space opera, they were told, just didnt sell. They ignored the advice, aiming for beer and pizza money, and ended up with a novel that blended hard science fiction and noir mystery as the specter of war looms over the solar system.
Leviathan Wakes kicks off Coreys The Expanse series, a sprawling, ambitious project that explores humanitys future in space, looking not only at the dangers of balkanization and marginalization in society, alongside the dangerous and perilous possibilities that a galactic diaspora might pose to humanity when we venture out into the stars.
While space opera never really went away, Leviathan Wakes has helped revitalize the story, paving the way for other authors to explore space and uncover new revelations about humanity as they do so.
Related books: Embers of War by Gareth Powell, Murderbot series by Martha Wells
Andy Weirs The Martian has what is probably the luckiest of origin stories. Weir worked as a programmer for a number of software companies over the course of his early career, but had always written on the side, publishing short stories like The Egg on his website in 2009. That same year, he began writing a story about a stranded astronaut on Mars, in which he worked out how a realistic mission to Mars would play out.
That realism is one reason why The Martian grabbed a lot of peoples attention: Weir paid a considerable amount of time getting the details right for a realistic mission to Mars, and the steps that his hapless astronaut, Mark Watney needed to take to survive, from how he grew his food, how he figured out how to communicate with Earth, and ultimately escape from the planet.
Additionally, The Martian helped demonstrate the potential of self-publishing. When Weir wasnt able to sell the novel to a publisher, he began serializing it on his website for free, and then began selling it on Amazon. The book quickly became a bestseller, which led to a major publishing deal and then a blockbuster movie directed by Ridley Scott.
Related books: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, Wool by Hugh Howey, Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos
When Ann Leckie burst onto the science fiction with her debut novel Ancillary Justice, it attracted immediate praise and criticism for one of her stylistic choices: a civilization that didnt utilize conventional pronouns.
In the very distant future, the Radchaai Galactic Empire rules over countless civilizations with the help of powerful starship AIs, loaded with corpse soldiers that it controls like puppets. One shipmind, the Justice of Toren, is destroyed, but who survives in the mind of one remaining soldier, and who sets off to extract revenge for her destruction.
Leckie helped popularize two things: she developed a civilization that broke completely away from the conventional depictions of gender and identify. She certainly wasnt the first to use these tropes, but following the book, science fiction authors have been increasingly freer to explore an increasingly sophisticated field of gender identity and depiction.
Ancillary Justice also explored another heady issue: looking at the nature a galactic empire not through the lens of building a uniform interstellar civilization, but through that of imperialism, colonization, and subjectification.
Related books: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders
Ever since cyberpunk and Frank Millers run on Batman in the 1980s, it feels like the entire field of science fiction has lurched somewhat towards an aesthetic of grim realism. The world is a dark, angry place, one where terrible things happen and life is meaningless. Theres no shortage of genuinely insightful, good books that adopt that mindset, such as Richard K. Morgans Altered Carbon or Paolo Bacigalupis relentlessly bleak The Windup Girl or The Water Knife. And thats before you get to the superhero films (at least up until Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok).
Thats why Becky Chambers debut novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was such a breath of fresh air for a lot of readers. Its an endlessly optimistic science fiction adventure that follows a young woman, Rosemary Harper, who joins the crew of a ship that helps create wormhole tunnels, The Wayfarer, as they travel across the galaxy, stopping by planet after planet.
Its a cozy read, one that will feel familiar to anyone who likes the Firefly brand of space opera, in which Chambers takes a keen interest in understanding the interpersonal workings of each of the crew members and how they fit together. Its a book thats endlessly fascinated about how a complicated world works, and one that retains its sense of optimism when its characters take to the stars. Its a book that understands that communities and civilization as a whole operates because of a greater sense of empathy, understanding, and compassion for ones neighbors, a lesson thats desperately needed these days.
Related books: Closed and Common Orbit / Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers, Space Opera by Catherynne Valente
Liu Cixins novel The Three-Body Problem and sequels (The Dark Forest and Deaths End) are ambitious books that have a sense of classic 1970s bigness to them, but which also explore humanitys place in the cosmos. The series follows humanitys discovery of an extraterrestrial civilization out there, and the subsequent invasion of Earth, starting during the Chinese Cultural revolution and stretching all the way to the heat death of the universe. Along the way, Liu explores how dangerous life in the larger universe could be, muses about dystopias and technological utopias, throws in some massive space battles, and just about everything else you can think of.
The incredible success of The Three-Body Problem (President Barack Obama and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg have praised the book) has led to more visibility for the larger science fiction scene in China, leading to the publication of more of Lius books, but others as well, like Hao Jingfangs Vagabonds, as well as dozens of shorter works from the country that have been translated into English in the years since.
This success in Chinese science fiction has morphed into additional interest in science fiction from around the world, and an increased awareness that science fiction isnt just a North American/European style of storytelling: its truly global.
Related books: Ball Lightning, Liu Cixin, Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang
For much of its history, literary critics and creators have often looked at science fiction like some unidentifiable splotch you might find under your shoe, something thats beneath the dignity of serious readers and thinkers. Nevermind that science fiction has a long track record of books that are easily on par with their literary counterparts.
Despite those long-standing prejudices, the conventions and tropes of science fiction have begun to bleed into conventional literary circles, especially as those authors are beginning to grapple with a world that increasingly looks like the setting of a science fiction novel. One stellar example of this is Emily St. John Mandels novel Station Eleven, which explores the aftermath of a deadly flu pandemic that devastates civilization, and in which the survivors band together to not only try and rebuild society, but try and preserve the things that make life worth living, like art and theater.
Mandels novel attracted considerable attention from both genre and literary readers, and it felt very much like a novel that helped convince readers of both stripes that (a) neither were going anywhere, and that (b) there are elements from both traditions that are well worth digging into.
Related books: Severance by Ling Ma, Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan, Famous Men Who Never Lived by K. Chess
Nnedi Okorafors response to Neill Blomkamps film District 9 was one of anger, because of the films portrayal of Nigerians and the misuse of its African setting. Her response was to write her own take on an alien invasion set in Africa, Lagoon.
With the work, Okorafor has embarked on a specific subgenre of science fiction that she calls Africanfuturism something she notes is different from the more widely known Afrofuturism. It, she says, is a mode of fiction that is Africa-centric, rather than science fiction generated from within the African American community, and more directly rooted in African culture, history, mythology and point-of-view as it then branches into the Black Diaspora, and it does not privilege or center the West.
Its an important distinction, one that highlights the increasingly global nature of the genre. As the world has become more connected, creators from all over the world are beginning to utilize the tropes of science fiction to imagine futures without that western mindset.
Related books: Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
N.K. Jemisins vision of Earth is one thats pummeled by fifth seasons, periodic, apocalyptic events that sends the remnants of humanity fleeing into strongholds to try and wait out the worst disasters. Jemisin follows a woman with powers (called an orogen) named Essun as she works to survive amidst a system that routinely oppresses people like her, and as she works to remake the world to become a better place.
The Fifth Season is the work of a writer at the top of her game: Jemisin splits the storys perspective not only between three individuals, but with three different tenses, all coming together at the end for an excellent reveal.
While the novel is stylistically phenomenal, its what Jemisin does with her story that sets it far apart from its peers, grappling with an important question: how do you take a world thats intrinsically broken, and make it better. A recent panel discussion at New York Comic Con discussed the nature of fantasy literature, with several creators pointing out that the genre has traditionally upheld established power structures. Jemisin pushes against that trope, using her characters to break down traditional norms and rebuild a world thats more fair, just, and equal.
Related books: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang, The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley
How do you travel between stars if youre writing a story set in a realistic world where things like hyperspace and warp drives cant exist? You hitch a ride on a generation ship, a massive vessel that is designed to be a small world unto itself, allowing multiple generations of humans to survive on the long voyage in the depths of space.
Kim Stanley Robinson turns his eye towards what a generation ship might look like, following the passengers of a generation ship bound for Tau Ceti. Robinson is known for his deeply-researched works, and Aurora presents one of the best-realized depictions of what life out beyond our solar system might look like. The generation ship is approaching the end of its journey, and its in tough shape: its running low on some critical elements and when it arrives at Tau Ceti, its passengers discover that while their new home can technically support human life, it will be an inhospitable existence for generations to come. With this book, Robinson highlights an inconvenient truth about the galaxy and science fiction: humanity is a species thats specifically suited for living on Earth, and that its health and well-being is paramount for our survival and future.
Related books: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald
In Mary Robinette Kowals alternate history, an asteroid comes down off the coast of Washington D.C., a potential doomsday event that devastates the world just after World War II. Governments around the world come to the conclusion that if it wants to survive, humanity must establish off-world colonies on the Moon, Mars, and beyond, and sets up a multinational space program to achieve that goal. Think JFKs speech on steroids.
Kowal draws on the present state of space exploration for this alternate history, putting some of its darkest moments front and center, where women and people of color were denied admission into the space program because of systemic racism and sexism. Her characters fight to be part of the program, arguing that if humanity wants to survive, everyone has to come along, including women and people of color.
In doing so, Kowal tackles head on some of the deepest assumptions that weve held about the space program, and shows how systemic inequality has impacted our progress in space. While weve been able to solve the technical barriers to get into orbit, in order to survive and thrive, well need to solve some of those more intractable problems.
Related books: The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz, Wayfarer series by Becky Chambers
A spacecraft comes to land over not New York City or another major world capital, but over the U.S. Virgin Islands. First contact with aliens known as the Ynaa proves to be fraught: theyre benevolent, but can be extremely violent. When a young boy is brutally killed after what seems like a minor slight, it sets into motion a series of actions that could unravel relations between the Ynaa and humanity.
While reading this book, I couldnt help but think back on the state of race relations in the United States: at its heart, its about young, Black men who run into the unmovable and unwavering force that is the US law enforcement mechanism. The book is a study in power and how two opposing sides warily regard one another, and what happens when things get out of control.
Given the events of the summer of 2020, this is a theme thats undoubtedly here to stay as authors use science fiction to explore this deadly power dynamic and white supremacy thats part of American life.
Related books: The Deep by Rivers Solomon, The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin, Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi
Read the rest here:
The most important science fiction books of the last 15 years - Polygon
Peter Watts Blindsight looked at first contact with aliens in a different way when it was first published in 2006, and its been one of those books that friends have fervently recommended in the years since.
One fan has taken it upon himself to adapt as a short film, which he released this week: a short CGI short that looks absolutely stunning.
The project comes from Danil Krivoruchko, whos spent the last four years working on it. It features a voice over that introduces us to the basic premise of the plota ship sent out to the edge of the solar system to explore an object broadcasting a signal, its crew of trans-human astronauts dealing with the strange extraterrestrials that they encounter. Along the way, we get a couple of scenes from the crews perspective as they explore the object, as well as some gorgeous space vistas. Its well worth a watch, especially in 4K resolution.
Accompanying the short is a very cool website that Krivoruchko and his team put together (I found it easiest to navigate the site on my iPad), which provides an in-depth behind-the-scenes look at the project. The space suit section, for example, details Watts description of the spacesuit from the books third chapter, then explains their thinking behind how they envisioned it, a number of reference photos, responses from Watts as they went through the production, and final imagery that they came up with.
Other sections cover the design of the Rorschach artifact, the spaceship Theseus, the equipment, the alien scramblers, ship interfaces, and the characters.
In another section, Krivoruchko outlines how he came to the book and how the project came to be. He read it in 2009 when it was released in Russia. It was a bit of a cult hit amongst his peers in the design world, and he was blown away by the amount of technical, scientific and psychological details Peter Watts packed into the novel while still keeping it a tense and fascinating read.
After reading it again a couple of years later, he reached out to Watts with his appreciation, and spoke with some of his friends, wanting to create some digital renders of the novels scenes and elements. The project began to grow, he explains. Initially, we wanted to make a bunch of still frames. Creating a full CG animated short felt too time-consuming and ambitious, he writes, but as time passed, more and more images were made, which helped attract even more incredibly talented people to the project. As the team grew, we realized that we now had enough resources to pull off animation.
He and his friends realized they couldnt do the entire novel, but they could adapt it. They took the story apart and figured out what scenes they wanted to create, then plotted it out, changing it up a bit from the novels structure, opting to tell the story from the end, and work their way forward. From there, they began modeling each element and scene, bouncing ideas off of Watts as they did so.
Danil reached out to me pretty close to the start of the process, Watts commented. They were in the Lets make a tribute fan site phase, which as I understand it fell somewhere between the lets do a couple of CG illustrations for the rifters gallery and Lets blow off the doors with a trailer from an alternate universe where someone made a movie out of Blindsight phases.
As Krivoruchko and his team came up with ideas, they sent them along to Watts, who provided some suggestions and what his mindset was when he was writing the book. Essentially, I let them read my mind, he says. Theyd come to me with their vision of a spacesuit or a scrambler, and Id tell them how it compared to the images that were in my head when I was writing the novel.
Sometimes theyd present an image that wasnt much like the one in my head at allbut their vision was so much better than mine that Id just nod wisely and sayYes, yes, thats exactly right.And Danil would marvel at what a master of descriptive prose I must be, to be able plant such precise imagery in the readers mind using nothing but abstract black scratches on a page.
On his website, Krivoruchko provides some of the messages that he exchanged with Watts, who enthusiastically cheered them on as they showed him what they were coming up with.
The final result is a nearly five minute long take on the novel with its own unique vantage point, but which otherwise captures the look and feel of the book. On his blog, Watts calls it a small masterpiece, and says that hes honored and humbled by the work of the team.
Read the original:
Watch This Superb Fan Adaptation of Peter Watts' Blindsight - tor.com
Trans activist and army vet describes the moment Joe Biden personally told her ‘trans rights are human rights’ – PinkNews
When Charlotte Clymer met Joe Biden he pointed at her heart and said "trans rights are human rights". (cmclymer/ Twitter)
A trans activist and veteran has described the moment Joe Biden personally told her trans rights are human rights, sweeping away any scepticism she had about his commitment to equality.
Charlotte Clymer, an activist, writer, a former press secretary for Human Rights Campaign and an army veteran, said that althoughBiden is often applauded for supporting equal marriage in US back in 2012, while Barack Obama was still officially evolving on the issue,his long history of supporting trans and non-binary people is often overlooked.
From endorsing Danica Roem, thefirst openly trans person elected to US state legislature, in 2017, to his strong LGBT+ policy plan during his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden has come out in support of trans people time and time again,Clymer wrote an op-ed for USA Today.
Even the most ardent progressives would have to concede that Biden is unusually knowledgeable on LGBTQ equality, and it shows, she wrote.
And yet, I will admit to having been skeptical myself until I met him.
Clymer said she met Biden at a presidential forum in 2019, and when she directly asked him about trans rights, he got very serious.
His face changed, he leaned in, and pointed his finger at my heart, she wrote.
He said trans rights are human rights and talked with me about his plans to ensure no LGBTQ person gets left behind.
Ive had conversations with other politicians who publicly supported LGBTQ people but betrayed a surface-level knowledge and commitment in private. Biden is not one of them.
His commitment to equality runs deep. You can feel it in your bones when you talk to him.
The trans activist added: For Joe Biden, what matters is that all people can live and work in their full authenticity and provide for their families without threat to their safety and dignity.
To him, we are not LGBTQ people in need of enhanced cultural framing but people who happen to be LGBTQ and deserve to have an equal stake in society just like everyone else, no better or worse.
Joe Biden doesnt have to guess or pander about the lived experiences of LGBTQ people.
He already knows us. Hes part of our family.
We can hardly blame the creators of this busy one-man show for endlessly worrying about whether the finished work counts as theatre. Much effort is made to satisfy stretched definitions of the form. The audience members are asked to upload video of themselves - staring, laughing, sleeping - and the rendered images, each transferred to tablet, are scattered about the auditorium in Project Arts Centre. Sitting at home before a streaming computer, you cannot control your avatar, but, as a few reverse shots clarify (apologies for cinematic rather than theatrical jargon), you are there in some cybernetic sense.
Jack Gleeson, best known as the horrid Joffrey in Game of Thrones, spends much of the brief running time pondering the ups and downs of this hybrid form. You can go to the lavatory with less inconvenience. Maybe you are on the lavatory right now. Try to forget the screen, he says before - in my case, anyway - a brief buffering issue (was that deliberate?) made that task impossible.
All this might have proved exhausting if the self-conscious experiments did not complement the plays core theme. Happily, the experimental format is well-suited to an exploration of transhumanism. Adapted from Mark OConnells acclaimed non-fiction book, To be a Machine, a Dead Centre production, goes among those scientists, entrepreneurs and philosophers who believe technology will allow consciousness to survive the bodys passing. Somewhere in Arizona, a company called Alcor keeps an array of upended heads in Perspex containers. The comparison with the two-dimensional heads scattered about the Projects auditorium is unavoidable. The digitally assisted survival of this theatre piece in the time of Covid acts as a neat metaphor for the process by which computers may allow our thought streams to outlast physical annihilation.
Playing a tweaked version of OConnell, Gleeson sometimes struggles to energise a monologue that carries a few stubborn reminders of its origins in long-form prose. But the technological flourishes keep the show engaging throughout.
Questions remain about its status as theatre. At one point, Gleeson, employing the famous Turing test, seeks to discover if the audience is really out there? We could ask him the same question. We know the show is live because we have been told as much, but, for those of us not having our comments in the chat-box read out, little on screen distinguishes it from a one-take movie. The pieces creators almost certainly savour that ambiguity.
Online until Sat, Oct 10th. For booking see dublintheatrefestival.ie
Humans and robots were first introduced to each other in a theatre. Karel apeks play RUR, which premiered in Prague in 1921, contained the first use of the term robot, and featured uncannily human-looking artificial people. So Mark OConnell tells us in his 2018 Wellcome prize-winning book To Be a Machine, an exploration of transhumanism, the belief that the human race can evolve beyond its limitations through technology and even thereby escape death.
OConnells book has now been adapted by the Irish theatre company Dead Centre into a stage show, co-directed by Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel, exploring the relationship between man and machine that has only become more vexed in the intervening century. And there will be no humans in the stalls. Instead, audiences watch from home, but have their faces pre-recorded and broadcast into the theatre on iPad screens placed in the seats, so they can be seen by Jack Gleeson as he performs the one-man show.
I spoke to OConnell and Gleeson, mediated fittingly enough by our laptop screens, about how they arrived at this premise. Over lockdown, the team were spitballing Covid-safe ideas that would mean they could still put on a theatre production in 2020. These semi-jokingly included performing to just a single audience member, like when Wu-Tang released that album that there was only one copy of, said OConnell.
The innovative format they landed on is more than a workaround forced by circumstance, though. Not to say that it was lucky, but the coronavirus situation dovetailed really nicely with some of the concerns of the book, said OConnell.
In the book, OConnell visits people at the heart of the transhumanist movement, in cryonics facilities and Silicon Valley conferences, and even in a coffin-shaped campaign bus of a transhumanist 2016 presidential candidate. But the stage show is less an adaptation of the events of the book than its ideas, such as self-alienation, the frailty of the body, the primacy of technology in our lives and our innate fear of death concerns that have only become more topical in the pandemic era.
How does the you that is presented on a screen relate to your physical, flesh and blood form? Where does your identity truly reside? Theyre ideas that can make you feel dizzy if you let them, and feelings that many of us have experienced through being beamed into the homes of friends and colleagues through machines over the past months. Gleeson and OConnell both speak about being familiar with alienation from the self. Gleesons image is associated with a character who could not be more different than the affable person speaking to me. He is best known as the sadistic villain King Joffrey on Game of Thrones.
That feeling of not recognising yourself, as Gleeson put it, is something OConnell also felt devising the stage adaptation. I got obsessed with how much time had passed since I wrote [the book] and how I was, in a lot of ways, a different person.
The stage show will consider transhumanism seriously, just as the book did. Its not just, Wow these guys are eccentric nerds, said Gleeson. Its a bigger meditation on things that we all feel, about how crappy our bodies are, and how mortal. And, ultimately, the desire to live forever can be traced back to our basic human wiring to fear death. Transhumanism is an expression of the profound human longing to transcend the confusion and desire and impotence and sickness of the body, writes OConnell.
Is the answer to existential dread, made worse by a pandemic, to escape our bodies once and for all? OConnell feels the opposite. Ive been thinking about how effectively flattened so much of our lives are, by being online all the time. And when I think about what it might be like to be an uploaded consciousness, it just feels like a horrific version of that.
Being an uploaded audience member, however, is a choice we might have to continue to make as theatre-goers for some time. One of the main ideas in the show is that maybe you cant recreate that feeling of being humans together in a room listening to a story thats so ingrained in us as a species, said Gleeson. But in many ways, the team behind To Be a Machine (Version 1.0), as this first showing at the Dublin theatre festival is titled, feel that they have managed to produce something that is enhanced, rather than limited, by being online: a final product rather than a first version. For one thing, the show makes use of videography that would not be possible live.
I cant help but be hopeful that this show and others like it work. As long as we have been telling stories, we have been telling them about the desire to escape our human bodies, to become something other than the animals we are, writes OConnell in the book. And for the moment, being uploaded to a theatre crowd might be the best way to achieve that much-needed abstraction from ourselves as we consider the near future and our place in it.
There's no evidence that life exists after death. But there's also no proof that death is the end of subjective experience, or that it's irreversible, or that we can't achieve immortality. In fact, some researchers think immortality is not only possible, but inevitable.
Alexey Turchin, an author, life extensionist and transhumanist researcher from Moscow, believes artificial intelligence will eventually become so powerful that humans will be able to download themselves or, the quantifiable information contained in their brains onto computers and live forever. Of course, even if that's possible, it'll take a while to develop that technology, anywhere from 100 to 600 years, according to Turchin.
"The development of AI is going rather fast, but we are still far away from being able to 'download' a human into a computer," Turchin told Russia Beyond. "If we want to do it with a good probability of success, then count on [the year] 2600, to be sure."
That's out of reach for us, sure. But downloading yourself onto a computer is just one possible route to immortality. In 2018, Turchin and Maxim Chernyakov, of the Russian Transhumanist Movement, wrote a paper outlining the main ways technology might someday make resurrection and, therefore, immortality possible.
First, some terms: The paper defines life as a "continued stream of subjective experiences" and death as the permanent end of that stream. Immortality, to them, is a "life stream without end," and resurrection is the "continuation of that same stream of experiences after an arbitrarily long gap."
Another key clarification is the identity problem: How would you know that a downloaded copy of yourself really was going to be you? Couldn't it just be a convincing yet incomplete and fundamentally distinct representation of your brain?
If you believe that your copy is not you, that implies you believe that there's something more to your identity than the (currently) quantifiable information contained within your brain and body, according to the researchers. In other words, "informational identity" is not enough for "real" identity.
In this scenario, there must exist what the researchers call a "non-informational identity carrier" (NIIC). This could be something like what religions call a "soul." It could be "qualia," which are the unmeasurable "subjective experiences which could be unique to every person." Or maybe it doesn't exist at all.
Either way, resurrection should be possible.
"If no 'soul' exist, resurrection is possible via information preservation; if soul exist, resurrection is possible via returning of the "soul" into the new body. But some forms of NIIC are also very fragile and mortal, like continuity," the researchers noted.
"The problem of the nature of human identity could be solved by future superintelligent AI, but for now it cannot be definitively solved. This means that we should try to preserve as much identity as possible and not refuse any approaches to life extension and resurrection even if they contradict our intuitions about identity, as our notions of identity could change later."
Turchin and Chernyakov outline seven broad categories of potential resurrection methods, ranked from the most plausible to the most speculative.
The first category includes methods practiced while the person is alive, like cryonics, plastination and preserving brain tissue through processes like chemical fixation. After all, there have been "suggestions that the claustrum, hypothalamus, or even a single neuron is the neural correlate of consciousness," so it may be possible to preserve just that part of a person, and later implant it into another organism, the researchers noted.
Other methods get far stranger. For example, one (very speculative) method might include superintelligent AI that uses a Dyson sphere to harness the power of the sun to "power enormous calculation engines" that would "reconstruct" people who collected a sufficient amount of data on their identities.
"The main idea of a resurrection-simulation is that if one takes the DNA of a past person and subjects it to the same developmental condition, as well as correcting the development based on some known outcomes, it is possible to create a model of a past person which is very close to the original," the researchers wrote.
"DNA samples of most people who lived in past 1 to 2 centuries could be extracted via global archeology. After the moment of death, the simulated person is moved into some form of the afterlife, perhaps similar to his religious expectations, where he meets his relatives."
Delving further into sci-fi territory, another resurrection method would use time-travel technology.
"If there will at some point be technology that allows travel to the past, then our future descendants will be able to directly save people dying in the past by collecting their brains at the moment of death and replacing them with replicas," the paper states.
"A nanorobot could be sent several billion years before now, where it could secretly replicate and sow nanotech within all living being without affecting the course of history. At the moment of death, such nanorobots could be activated to collect data about the brain and preserve it somewhere until its future resurrection; thus, there would be no need for forward time travel."
The paper goes on to outline some more resurrection methods, including ones that involve parallel worlds, aliens and clones, along with a good, old-fashioned possibility: god exists and one day he resurrects us.
In short, it's all extremely speculative.
But the aim of the paper was simply to catalogue the potential ways humans might be able to cheat death. For Turchin, that's not some far-off project: In addition to studying global risks and transhumanism, the Russian researcher heads the Immortality Roadmap, which, similar to the 2018 paper, outlines various ways in which we might someday achieve immortality.
Although it may take centuries before humans come close to "digital immortality," Turchin believes that life-extension technology could allow some people to survive long enough to see it happen.
Want a shot at being among them? Beyond the obvious, like staying healthy, the Immortality Roadmap suggests you start collecting extensive data on yourself: diaries, video recordings, DNA information, EEGs, complex creative objects all of which could someday be used to digitally "reconstruct" your identity.
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