If you were offered the chance to become a god, would you?
The rapidly advancing fields of nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering, among others, are converging into an event horizon from which our humanity may not escape intact.
Molecule-sized machines will soon be repairing our bodies at the cellular level. Our very DNA will be edited and corrected, made free of the disease-causing genes. Computerized intelligences will take our discoveries and perfect them, aiding us in bringing these advances ever further. We may even attain immortality.
In short, we will no longer be subject to nature’s whims. This is the humming, mechanical heart of transhumanism: the belief that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations through science and technology.
Ray Kurzweil, inventor, computer scientist, and recipient of the $500,000 Lamelson-MIT prize and National Medal of Technology, proposes what he calls the “three bridges” that must be crossed on the way to human immortality.
The “First Bridge” is the one we must tread right now—staying healthy through diet, exercise, and supplements. We simply have to live long enough to get to the next Bridge.
This looming Second Bridge involves a biotechnological revolution, one in which science enables us to change our genes, eliminating the advent of many diseases and greatly slowing the aging process.
The last and Third Bridge proposed by Kurzweil is bound up in nanotechnology and artificial intelligence—those molecule-sized machines will constantly rebuild us from the inside out, rendering us immune to the normal aging process.
The foundations for the latter two bridges have already been laid, and Kurzweil thinks that we’ll see them crossed in as little as 20 years.
But the prospect of immortality, of artificially expanded intellects and hyper-sharp senses and augmented strength, raises many questions that we’ve only just begun to explore.
And nothing allows us to explore possible futures like fiction. In the two recent installments of the thematically and aesthetically incredible Deus Ex video game series, “Human Revolution,” and “Mankind Divided,” players find themselves in a world that has been destabilized by human augmentation. With the games being set in our very near-future, these augmentations are mechanical rather than nanotechnological in nature, and appear in the form of everything from cranially implanted cognitive enhancements to powerful and aesthetically beautiful designer replacements for limbs and organs.
The term, deus ex machina, from which the Deus Ex series derives its name, translates to “god out of the machine,” and finds its origins in ancient Greece. When a playwright would find himself with an unsolvable plot problem while writing his plays, he would solve it lower a pagan god onto the stage via crane to suddenly solve the characters’ dilemma and bring about a tidy conclusion. Hence, the “god out of the machine”.
And, indeed, as players progress through the Deus Ex games, getting a glimpse of a very realistic and probable near-future world, this term takes on a wholly new meaning. The deus ex machina is no longer a plot device, but a creed. We are the gods out of the machine, conceived and lowered onto the stage of life by our advanced technology to miraculously stop the inevitable ending to the human story—death.
Players inhabit the life of Adam Jensen, security chief of one of the leading manufacturers of augmentations, Sarif Industries, who, after an attack on Sarif’s labs that leaves him near-death, is heavily augmented without his consent. Through an expertly designed in-game choice system, players are presented with an opportunity to consider what it means to transcend the mortal condition through the use of technology, to choose their stance, and to possibly come to a position of their own on the issue. In this way, the Deus Ex games are the literature of their genre, bringing immediate, real-world issues into perspective through fiction.
In Human Revolution, Sarif Industries, is under pressure from activists and politicians to consider the consequences of altering the path of humanity’s evolution. And this pressure is not unfounded, as several shadowy groups begin to take advantage of these new technologies in profound and deadly ways, using them to manipulate humanity for their own gain.
As problems with augmentation technology pile up, one of the recurring themes of Human Revolution is the Greek Myth of Icarus, the boy who, while escaping from a prison with his father, flew too close to the sun on artificial wings, only to find that the wax his father used to affix the wings to his body melting in the heat. He plunges into the sea, and is lost, much to the grief of his father. There is, perhaps, no greater mythological symbol of the transformation man is poised to undergo. We stand the collective chance of flying too closely to the sun, ourselves, and the sea awaits us far below if we misstep.