Monday, November 8, 2010
20. WHAT IF THE MINDCLONES RUN OUT OF CYBERSPACE?
Vitology is confined to cyberspace much as biology is confined to its organic environments. Cyberspace is any environment in which software can operate. Of course not all software will operate in all cyberspace environments. Similarly, not all biology operates in all organic environments. Aquatic life dies on land and software will not live – stream order upon itself pursuant to a code – in hardware with which it is not compatible.
The total biological environment is scarcely growing at all. The earth is fixed and the only new biological spaces being created are the space stations in earth orbit and buildings carved from the subterranean mantel. The cyberspace environment, on the other hand, is exploding in size and scope. In the twenty years from 1988 to 2008 over a billion personal computers (such as laptops) and over four billion hand-held computers (such as cellphones) have been sold. That’s about 140 million square meters of cyberspace, or about twice the size of Manhattan! This figure doesn’t even include the expansion of cyberspace into automobiles, appliances and infrastructure of almost every sort.
The mass production of computer hardware even far understates the growth of cyberspace. This is because “virtualization” allows computers to split themselves into several ‘virtual machines’, each of which can run its own operating system and applications. This separately multitasks hardware from software, and relies upon a new kind of software, called a hypervisor, to control access to the computer’s commonly-accessed processors and memory. Consequently, dozens, hundreds even millions of mindclones could share single pieces of hardware. The virtualization software market has grown from nothing in 2002 to many billions of dollars a year today.
Since the 1960s cyberspace has also extended far beyond the reaches of biospace. Software functions on space probes to nearly every solar planet, oblivious to the biologically deadly vacuum of space. The Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft have taken cyberspace out of the solar system. While the cyberspace environments we’ve shipped into the cosmos lack vitology, i.e., self-replicating codes, they nevertheless could nurture such life.
Cyberspace is poised to now take some huge steps toward ubiquity. One leap is associated with devices called Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFIDs). These microchips (tiny pieces of cyberspace landscape) can be made in quantity for much less than a dollar each. At that price it becomes economic to attach one to virtually anything of value so that the object thereafter can be scanned for useful associated information. This data might include its price, contents, place of manufacture and a unique identifier (a digital bar code) that would enable searching quite specifically for more information about it. Each RFID is a scrap of cyberspace that will become better at supporting vitology (more like a supercomputer on a chip) as the price/performance ratio of microchips continues to advance.
To support cyberspace ubiquity, the world’s internet managers recently exploded the number of internet digital addresses. They launched a new protocol that increased the previous 4 billion possible addresses (originally thought to adequately cover about one computer per person) to many, many trillions of possible addresses. This enables virtually everything of any interest to humans to have a piece of cyberspace not only associated with it (the cheap RFIDs do that), but also wirelessly networked. In other words, the ubiquity of cyberspace is not that of an archipelago in which evolution pursues quaint dead-ends, as in the Galapagos. Instead, the ubiquity of cyberspace is that of a humungous array of connected Petri dishes. New kinds of vitology will have ready access to new environments into which successful reproducers can spread their kind and further evolution can occur. We are creating at breakneck speed a parallel environment, cyberspace, in which vitology can evolve with a freedom comparable to biology’s reign in biospace.
Another leap toward cyberspace ubiquity is the advent of wearable and even implantable electronics. Bluetooth headsets sprout on the ears of millions, and digital sportswear abounds. Patients with challenging diseases have pioneered during the past decade the technology of bio-compatible chips implanted in the ear, eye, brain, heart and abdomen. Human bodies are likely to become pockmarked with cyberspace for reasons of health and convenience.
Ultimately there are visions of cyberspace replicating bio-space. For example, if nanotechnology fulfills its promise of enabling the purposeful construction of any form from basic molecules, then each such biological form could also be a piece of cyberspace, rife with software that directs its activities in a biological world. Forms indistinguishable from insects or humans could actually be cyberspace formed by nanotechnology. Stranger still, the vitological souls residing in nanotechnological human forms could direct a reassembly of their form into something else by a rearrangement of the nanotechnology. You could look like a human while your mindclone can look like an eagle.
Similarly, synthetic biology makes possible the custom design of life forms from commercially available toolkits of naturally evolved and novel strings of DNA. New bacteria have been created with useful properties never seen in nature, such as acting as an electronic switch. It is inevitable that these efforts will be extended into the creation of bacteriological equivalents to memory chips and microprocessors. These cyberspace building blocks will have their DNA manipulated so that they are driven to selectively network together into multicellular (cyberspace) organisms. Hence, a vast growing supply of biocyberspace can arise from the self-replication competency of biology once manipulated by synthetic genetic engineering techniques.
Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill, since the 1980s, and Ray Kurzweil, since the early 21st century, have laid out roadmaps for creating a practically inexhaustible supply of cyberspace. In Dr. O’Neill’s vision robotic probes would use advanced nanotechnology to reassemble terrestrial planets throughout the galaxy into more robotic probes, each of which could host vast communities of vitological life. Similarly, Kurzweil believes the direction of civilization is to use highly intelligent and capable nanotechnology to convert the ‘dumb matter’ of the universe into ‘smart matter.’ This would essentially create a new ontology of cyberspace-based matter, which he calls “computronium.” In any event, there is no need to gaze so far into space and time. Easily extracted elements on earth are adequate to create enough cyberspace so that everyone has a mindclone.
This quick survey of the spread and potential of cyberspace demonstrates that vitology won’t run out of an environment in which to rapidly evolve. Vitology can rely upon humanity to create the environment it needs for growth, just as it relies upon humanity to evolve the codes needed for vitological evolution. Vitology and human biology have a symbiotic relationship: by creating a cyberspace environment for human benefit, an eco-system is created for software-based life as well. But this is, after all, what many living things do: occupy niches created through the by-products of other living things. We all live in the wake of plant life’s exhaled oxygen. Vitology will live in the wake of humanity’s exuded silicon.