Augmented evolution: Why the definition of “human” is about to change

If there’s other intelligent life in the universe, is it very different from us, or is it very similar? First we have to know where our species is headed, says NASA's Michelle Thaller.

If there are intelligent alien civilizations out there, would they look like us? To answer that question, we first have to ask another: Is our species about to take an evolutionary leap? "I think that the definition of being human is about to change a lot in the next century," says Michelle Thaller, astronomer and Assistant Director for Science Communication at NASA. Over the next few decades, Thaller speculates that humanity's augmented evolution will begin as we start to merge with A.I.s. Our biological bodies might just be a first step in human evolution, says Thaller, and high-tech implants and neural interfaces may make it possible for us to design our own bodies. "When you design your own body to suit any environment you want, why look like a human? Maybe you want to—[or] maybe you want to be a piece of foil that spreads itself across square kilometers to fly on solar winds and actually move around through solar systems. Maybe you look nothing like a human. Maybe you have nothing like a human life." So what does this have to do with aliens? Thaller posits that any advanced civilization that is more evolved than us would also have left its biological evolution behind. Expecting humanoid extraterrestrials might be too narrow minded. Maybe aliens are algorithms. Maybe we shouldn't even be looking for DNA and microbial life. Perhaps ET is a flat sheet of foil cruising through the universe on solar winds.

Michelle Thaller: You know, one of oldest questions I think humankind has asked is: “If there’s other life in the universe, is it very, very different from us, or is it very similar?”

And even when it comes to the microbial level, even like very small bacteria things—you know, right now we’re exploring the solar system looking for evidence of life on Mars or on some of the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn. There are oceans underneath the ice, and even if we found a microbe I think one of the first questions is: Does it have something like DNA? Is it similarly put together the way we are, or is it something very different, even at the microbial level?
And then you take that question and you move even farther. I mea,n what would aliens that are more evolved look like? Aliens that maybe even have advanced civilizations? And this is one of these things where I’m very aware of the limits of human imagination. Einstein famously said ‘the universe is not stranger than we do imagine—it’s stranger than we can imagine.’

And I think that a lot of times people say, Well, we have one evidence of how life started and how life can exist, and it sort of makes sense that maybe something similar would have started on different planets. I think actually when you think about civilizations, aliens out there that are advanced—that maybe even have more advanced civilizations than we do—the thing that I really can’t get around is, that I think that the definition of being human is about to change a lot in the next century.

I think that humans and A.I.s and computers will begin to merge and actually become somewhat indistinguishable from each other. This is not some Terminator scenario of the A.I.s taking over and destroying everything. But, for example, I have a friend who has cochlear implants. He was profoundly deaf and then had cochlear implants put in. And I’ve gone to classical music concerts with him—I remember we went to go see Carmen, and there were tears rolling down his face as he was listening to Carmen. And he knows that he doesn’t hear like a human being hears. There are wires that are directly implanted into his brain that stimulate the auditory section; it never goes through an ear. And he upgrades his software every now and then and then he hears differently. All of a sudden the sounds are different and he actually hears different ranges depending on how his software has been updated. But he always reminds me that what technology did for him was make him more connected, more emotional. I remember somebody was color blind but they actually have an auditory cue as to color, and so it sort of changed the way their brain responds. The implants that are coming, and they will be coming soon, you know.

Once you could implant artificial ears in people, why just hear with the range of a human, right? Why not hear with the range of a dog or a whale or a bird that can hear much higher and lower pitched frequencies than we can? That will come soon. And then when we can augment our eyes, why just see visible light? Why not see x-rays and ultraviolet and infrared light and everything that’s out there? I don’t think there’s any way around this. The aliens we’re going to encounter, if they are advanced from us by many centuries of technology, are going to be indistinguishable from A.I.s. And I don’t think we are looking for biological life. I think we should spend more time thinking about what life really will evolve into.

It may be that the biological being that I am was just a first stage in evolution, and a necessary and maybe even beautiful next step in evolution is for us to be augmented—and maybe someday to completely design our artificial bodies.

When you design your own body to suit any environment you want, why look like a human? Maybe you want to; maybe you want to be a piece of foil that spreads itself across square kilometers to fly on solar winds and actually move around through solar systems. Maybe you look nothing like a human. Maybe you have nothing like a human life.

So this is not a scary science-fiction scenario. I’m not saying that we’re going to be overrun and destroyed by the A.I.s, but I don’t know how you get around very advanced civilizations having gone through an augmentation stage. And I think the next stage in our evolution will most likely be that. And I think maybe we shouldn’t be looking in environments just like the Earth—that maybe where life started, but truly evolved civilizations left that biological necessity behind long ago.

It’s very interesting. But like I said, there’s this guy, his name is Michael, with the cochlear implants. I mean he’s like, “Why do we assume technology is going to keep us apart from each other and make us less human? It might make us even more human.”