In a recent essay (see Post-Virtual World), we explored two technologies that will fundamentally change our experience: invisible interfaces and intelligence-to-intelligence (i2i) communications. Invisible interfaces require no obvious interface—no keystrokes, voice or gestures-- for our minds to communicate with computational systems, enabling data to be uploaded directly to our brains. Invisible interfaces thus allow for i2i capabilities, direct communication between humans and/or Artificial Intelligences, historically known as telepathy.
Elon Musk’s Neuralink and Bryan Johnson’s Kernel, both pursuing versions of invisible interfaces, reflect the understanding that recent neuroscience research places these capabilities within reach. (Disclosure: co-author neuroscientist Moran Cerf is involved with both Neuralink and Kernel.) In this article, we’ll explore one implication of these technologies with the potential to transform the human experience.
Braintree founder Bryan Johnson speaks onstage at Imagination Day during the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
Fantasize the meal you would enjoy if you had no constraints. The most fat-filled, sugar-fortified bacchanal you can imagine. Now imagine you could enjoy this meal without any calories. The holistic, visceral experience without ingesting any food. This illustrates what we refer to as decoupling — the dissociation of human desires from the physical inputs traditionally required to fulfill them. Our research now shows initial steps towards making this possible.
Consider eating a chocolate cake. While eating, we feed data to our cognitive apparatus. These data provide the enjoyment of the cake. The enjoyment isn’t in the cake, per se, but in our neural experience of it. Decoupling our sensory desire (the experience of cake) from the underlying survival purpose (nutrition) will soon be within our reach. Being able to “not have our cakes and eat them, too.”
In such a world, we’d be able to fulfill nutritional requirements with a much narrower supply of inputs. Think Soylent Green, but far more advanced (and not made of people). Nutrition inputs customized for each person based on genomes, microbiomes or other factors. Physical diets released from the tyranny of desire.
Desires evolved as a result of survival advantages they conferred within the environments in which we evolved. They motivate behaviors that lead to neural wiring, promoting repetition. Desires to taste sweet and savory ensured we’d eat when food was available, a positive adaptation when nutrition was scarce. Today, such desires lead to epidemics such as obesity and diabetes. We are more likely to die from over-eating than mal-nourishment.
Sexuality and relationships in a decoupled world
Over the next generation (perhaps sooner), technology could allow us to unravel this physical-neural connection. In a decoupled world, material inputs would be relevant only for survival benefits, such as the mechanistic purposes of the 4F’s of survival: feeding, fighting, fleeing and mating.
Sexuality transcends the requirement of procreation. Virtual solutions such as pornography exist, but are caricatures of the real experience. In a world of intense, comprehensive VR, sexual, social interactions between humans and/or simulations will beget new forms of sexuality. Technology mediated sexuality will complement and might even eventually replace the original. Imagine an AI system designed to respond optimally to individual preferences. Now imagine the prospect of finding a traditional companion able to compete sexually. No longer science fiction, our understanding of the neural mechanisms governing pleasure, reward and sensations will later this century enable such simulations.
This proposition feels disquieting. It presents a world quite different from our own, though we have a precedent. Pornography can already create unrealistic expectations between human partners. Studies show that three repeated exposures to a specific pornographic flavor often shapes the viewers’ taste. Extrapolate this to a world where intense, diverse sexual experiences might be widely available. While such abundant access to stimulation might cause people to retreat from one another, it is also likely that the role of sexuality in human relationships will change. How will we seek relationships, feel human connections and build trust in such a future?
Note that sexual compatibility between individuals often fails to correlate with other factors that comprise healthy relationships. Might decoupling liberate the complicated interplay between sexuality and human relationships? A wide range of sexual encounters might be possible with or without other human beings. Individuals might engage more often in non-sexual intimate relationships without concern for physical compatibility. “He (or she) has a great personality” might acquire new meaning in future mating games.
Might some of us become victims of seeking ever more intense experiences, like drug addicts seeking ever-larger doses? It will be essential to better understand mechanisms of dependency. Alternatively, widespread availability might decrease desire. The experience will always be available, thus less dear. Economist Thorstein Veblen’s concept of conspicuous consumption might unravel in a world of experiential abundance.
Decoupling is not limited to base appetites. Within constructed realities, individuals could achieve esteem based on the consent of a narrow set of compatriots, much as people do today via social media communities, but in a more comprehensive manner. By extension, an individual could engage in realities where his or her social esteem requires no other human’s conciliation — within entirely self-defined worlds.
Overcoming ethical and environmental trade-offs
Decoupling provides the prospect of altering our ecological and ethical footprints. Appealing to rationality and compassion to change human behavior has not worked especially well. Smoking kills, yet millions do it. Unhealthy diets threaten longevity, yet immediate rewards outweigh long-term costs. Even among populations convinced of human-influenced climate change, behavior change has often required government edicts.
One ethical and environmental dilemma we all face is the scale production of meat. Animal husbandry is one of the most powerful contributors to climate change. Most people recoil in disgust or shame when presented with how the animals are treated. Despite the ethical predicament, most people continue to consume. Desire rationalized by cultural norms trumps ethics for otherwise compassionate, well-meaning people. Decoupling offers palatable paths out of such conundrums.
Cautiously to the future
Humans have always sought satisfaction divorced from consequences. We’ve just never been very good at it. Diet soft drinks promise flavor without calories. Pornography offers a pale sop. Neither provides an experience identical to — much less better than — the original, and each generates new challenges.
Comprehensive virtual existence could negatively impact physical activity, yet we will remain (likely for some time) physical beings. Our bodies depend on physical activity to maintain good health. We will require new approaches to wellness — an enormous business opportunity.
Decoupling could even threaten our survival. Our brains have not evolved to recognize a difference between the sensations of consuming nourishment or procreating and the actual consumption of food or engagement in intercourse. Experiments with rats pitting the need for food against the desire for direct stimulation of neural pleasure centers resulted in what must have been a bleary, euphoric death. Some of us might choose oblivion. The hope-giving extension of this experiment expanded the mice’s options to include social interactions with other mice. For most of the mice, their desire for sociability overwhelmed the attraction of a quick hit.
As technology accelerates, we become subjects of our own living experiments. In a decoupled world, our desire-survival autopilot disappears. Pursuing physical nourishment, social interactions and procreation will require management — conscious or automated, individual or collective — rather than emerging as a consequence of appetite.
Extrapolating decoupling to its logical conclusion suggests obviating the need for our physical bodies. An entirely cyber existence. When or if this will occur is a matter of speculation, but we are in the early stages of this journey. Increasingly, we — and our technologies — will construct our living realities. To be ready, we must speculate, ponder, debate, engage. We have the potential to be masters of our emerging universes, or victims thereof.