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Alien Scientist: Plug-in Humanity

Author: Stephen Marshall, Issue: January 2004, Topic: Alien Scientist, Science

With its bright lightly lit streets of exotic neon and shops full of futuristic gadgets, the 'Electric Town' of Akihabara was part of the inspiration for William Gibson's classic science fiction novel Neuromancer. Set partly in a futuristic dystopian incarnation of Tokyo, the novel's characters go around with their minds plugged into data fields via surgically implanted hardware.

Neuromancer was dreamed up before the world wide web, back in the early eighties, when you needed to connect up a cassette tape recorder to 'load' data to or from your home computer; when a modem was a funny kind of telephone with a flashing red light on top of it. Nowadays, we have internet-connecting mobile phones, caressed and clasped so tightly to our ears it's almost as close as we can currently get to cyberspace as an extension of the self.

Time was when a piece of technology was a substantial contraption: like a grandfather clock, a huge wooden box with levers and pulleys and a great creaking pendulum. The technology then got smaller and nimbler until the clock became something for the mantelpiece, then carried in the pocket, and then something worn on the wrist. What once was a substantial piece of furniture is now worn as an accessory. Wireless radios and gramophones that started out as great wood-encased objects have become tiny clip-on personal stereos, plugged directly into the human ear socket. The video-goggle will become the miniature evolutionary descendant of the picture-house.

Sooner or later, people will want their technology as close as possible to the point of use - ultimately, as information in the brain. The computer, which once famously filled a whole room, could be a little device like a hearing aid perched behind our ear. Ultimately, it would be neater to just tuck it inside our skin. With wireless technology, there won't even be a need for any socket or antenna, to advertise what systems are inside.

As time goes on, we will surely suck more devices into our bodies, just as the modem, once a 'peripheral', is now normally built into computers as standard. The time may come where we build into our bodies a whole room full of furniture - TVs and radios, computers and calculators, as well as grandfather clocks and gramophones. (Just about anything, except the remote control.)

Any alien observers would surely note our biotechnological development with interest. Aliens with X-ray eyes can effortlessly spot our prosthetic enhancements. (Aliens doing their 'round the galaxy grand tour' in their 'aeon out' can make some ready cash temping in hospital wards and airport security.) They can easily spot all the 'foreign bodies' we plug into ourselves for function or fashion: the contact lenses we insert in our eyes, the mercury or gold we cast into our teeth, and all the metallic rings and studs we stick in our earlobes, noses and other curious folds of skin.

Maybe one day we will swap some bodily technologies with the extra-terrestrials. Forget alien abductions bent on sexual reproduction. Perhaps we can gain more directly from the diversity of universal evolutionary history by trading ready-made components, rather than trying to evolve them incrementally through cross-breeding. We can make our artificial selection direct from a galactic catalogue of existing body systems, and enhance our home-grown light-ray eye-tech with some bolt-on extra-terrestrial X-ray spec.

In fact, our alien observers would have noted that we already have a 'system architecture' compatible with other species. Human-made prosthetics are not the only foreign bodies we have within us. The human ecosystem already contains many organisms - millions of tiny microbes that live inside us, doing part of our bodily functions for us - like the bacteria that help break down the food in our guts. In a sense, we have already absorbed these 'food processors' as dedicated guest workers alongside our in-house gut functions.

And, in the other direction of scale, humans can also be seen as part of the Earth's living ecosystem. Some regard the whole Earth as a single organism, Gaia, that is composed of all living species, including humans. Whether regarded as an 'organism' literally or metaphorically, if Earth is Gaia, the chances are that the universe hosts a multitude of other Gaias out there, which will each have their own ecosystems. Perhaps if humans ever get there they will become absorbed into these other alien Gaias. So humanity could become a fashionable plug-in to some other planetary body.

<< A Note from the Editor | Master Index | Science News: January 2004 >>

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