Monday, 1 May 2017

A Transhumanist Vision for Star Trek

By Adam D.A. Manning

(This is a longer version of an article that originally appeared in the wonderful Strange Skins fanzine, which you can check out here:

Star Trek: The Original Series debuted in 1966 and one of the most exciting elements of it that helped captivate the audience was its broad and convincing setting.  Much of this setting will have been familiar to the TV audience from other science fiction TV series including the slightly earlier Lost in Space, and movies including Forbidden Planet and the much earlier Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers cinematic series.  This is a universe of futuristic space ships, smart uniforms, ray guns and planets with life forms much like those found on Earth.   These basic elements, immediately recognisable to a TV audience, carried on largely unchanged into the later Star Trek series, up to an including Star Trek: Enterprise.

Yet science fiction, especially of a literary kind, has moved on enormously from this older vision of the future, reflecting the enormous technological changes that have occurred in our lives. Away from science fiction, these changes have also prompted a social movement called transhumanism which looks ahead and considers how these changes may continue and even accelerate in the future. 

A broad concept, transhumanism often examines computers and artificial intelligence and a key point here is “the Singularity”; a future event in which artificial intelligence outgrows the human level and in so doing is able to create further intelligences of an even higher level. This cascading effect makes it impossible for mere humans to predict or even conceive of what might happen next – hence its name.  A similar approach is taken to other advanced technology including genetics, nano-technology, cybernetics and the possibility of mind uploading – that is uploading your consciousness into a computer. Greatly enhanced life extension is another interest.

Some transhumanists predict enormously radical changes in the future. Ray Kurzweil, a prominent transhumanist writer, predicts that the Singularity will take place around 2045. Not only that, but by 2099 people will be able to live indefinitely long life spans and humans and computers will have merged.  Beyond that, these new intelligences will start saturating the Solar System and then the rest of the galaxy with their consciousness with the creation of planet-sized computers.

These themes have for some time been reflected in science fiction novels; for example in the works of authors such as Alastair Reynolds, Iain M. Banks and Peter F. Hamilton. The internet and the digital revolution have given our real lives elements that could only be thought of as science fiction to the audience of Star Trek when it was first broadcast in the sixties.  As readers, we take for granted a much higher level of technology in science fiction than previous generations.

By contrast, Star Trek’s future is much less radical than the extraordinary vision of transhumanists such as Kurzweil. It is interesting to note how Star Trek, in all its series, has largely avoided taking on a more transhumanist approach. All of its shows depict a largely human crew, not really any different from the TV audience of today.  This point is starkly made in an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series itself. In Space Speed, the genetic superman Khan comments that, “I am surprised how little improvement there has been in human evolution. Oh, there has been technical advancement, but, how little man himself has changed." 

Whilst Khan is a product of transhumanist style genetic engineering, the crew of the Enterprise seem to him oddly unchanged from the original form.  Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s crew includes the genetically enhanced Dr Julian Bashir but here it is clear that such augmentation of a natural human is illegal in the Federation. This is despite other, far more extraordinary scientific advances found in Trek such as warp drive, artificial gravity, matter replicators and the transporter.

Although Star Trek is set in the 23rd and 24th centuries, long after the proposed date of 2045 for the Singularity, true artificial intelligence seems something of a rarity. The Enterprise’s computer only rarely breaks through to full sentience and is largely no different from a contemporary computer, albeit far more powerful. Data, the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation is stated to be an artificial intelligence and in some respects at a higher level than a human, yet he often serves the plot as a Pinocchio like character rather than being an exploration of machine intelligence and what it implies for human identity, capacities and purpose. 

The most well known transhumanist element of Star Trek might in fact be one of its deadliest villains – the Borg. Cybernetic, collectivist organisms who seem to be more machine than life form, the fact that they can only play a role as the Federation’s greatest enemy adds further weight to this anti-transhumanist theme.

It will be fascinating to see how far the new Star Trek show, Star Trek: Discovery, incorporates transhumanist elements. There has been some discussion about this but it has to be remembered that often Trek seems more interested in acting as a metaphor for contemporary social issues rather than being a rigorously science fiction themed production. In any event, whilst it might be interesting to speculate about this, it has to be remembered that the new show will be seeking mass appeal to a mainstream audience.

It is interesting to speculate what a fully transhumanist vision of Star Trek might be and the following is a sketch of this concept.

Set two hundred years after a technological singularity on Earth, the crew of the United Society Starship Enterprise are largely machine-based cyborgs, with only a certain amount of organic tissue in the computational matrix of each crew member being found to be necessary.  The crew are cybernetic avatars of the artificially intelligent mind of the ship itself – mobile extensions of the Enterprise, who assist with operations on planetary surfaces to enhance its mission of exploring and surveying the galaxy. Each crew member is very different in appearance and abilities from the others, both in their functionality for their mission speciality and some degree of personal aesthetic enhancement, including the use of further, replaceable biological elements.

When not in physical operation, each crew member integrates back into the machine mind of the ship. Each crew member has their own, individual intelligence, at a level far beyond the human, but these are still part of the collective whole of the ship’s intelligence, which is as far beyond them in intelligence as they are beyond the human.  They each have their own unique personality and identity, as it has been found that diversity amongst the crew helps with the overall completion of mission objectives. When integrated with the ship’s intelligence, they interact instantaneously in a virtual environment.

If a crew member should be damaged when on a mission, the damaged part can be repaired or replaced very easily. Indeed, if the crew member should “die” then their consciousness can be copied from its most recent update in the ship’s intelligence and downloaded into a new robotic avatar. Each crew member is therefore functionally immortal.

Avoiding the fantasy of faster-than-light travel of Star Trek, this new show would depict a star ship using real science, possibly involving a fusion or even anti-matter driven engine.  Travelling at around a tenth or even as much as a third of the speed light, it would take decades to reach other stars and yet to the mostly inorganic crew, this is not a difficulty as they would spend much of the journey inoperative physically, engaging in social, hedonistic and educational delights in their perfect, utopian virtual world.

Their mission is to survey the part of the galaxy they are able to reach in their star ship, to seek out new worlds and analyse them for possible conversion to the planet-sized computers that their star spanning Society seeks to construct. Earth, long since altered into a pristine wildlife park for its native life forms, has through humanity spawned a post-human culture intent on saturating space with consciousness. Yet planets with any form of life, no matter how humble, are treated with reverence and, in accordance with the Society’s Primary Direction, safeguarded from interference and studied for scientific information.

Sometimes they encounter other members of their Society, for example if they return to nearer the Solar System, the centre of the Society.  The Society, a post-human culture, is enormously varied and includes natural humans (unaltered biologically from humans of pre-Singularity times), completely artificial life forms, intelligent machines of all kinds and even genetically enhanced humans and animals (including intelligent apes, dolphins, lizards etc). Life extension has become so powerful that it is possible to encounter humans who were born in the twentieth century.

The majority of the Society’s interaction is carried out in a virtual environment to which they all have access. This virtual environment is far greater in extent, fidelity and diversity than the inhabited galaxy. Indeed many citizens of the Society consider the virtual their primary world and reality something they only engage in when unavoidably necessary.

For the last 150 years, small, artificially intelligent probes the size of footballs have been spreading out across space as initial surveyors, and the crew of the Enterprise are following up data sent back by these original pioneers.  The initial surveys, travelling at up to 50% of the speed of light, have pushed the frontier back to about 50 light years from Earth’s Solar System. There are around two thousand stars (and a similar number of planets) within this volume of space and to date around 20% of these have been surveyed to any significant degree.  The Society’s long term goal and dream is to one day discover alien sentient life, which has so far been entirely undetected.

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