So the Salt Being is back. Bwa-ha-ha! More microbiology.
As Charlie points out, there are lots of ifs and buts about the coming singularity, the day when machine intelligence finally overtakes the human mind. But what if the singularity is already underway? And if it is--what does it look like?
Suppose it looks like mitochondria. Suppose we're becoming the mitochondria of our machines.
How did mitochondria get to what they are today? The (now classic) theory of endosymbiosis began as a New-age feminist plot by Lynn Margulis, a microscopist known for setting paramecium videos to rock music. Around one or two billion years ago, a bacterium much like Escherichia coli took up residence within a larger host microbe. Either the larger tried to eat the smaller (like amebas do), or the smaller tried to parasitize the larger (like tuberculosis bacteria do). One way or another, their microbial descendants reached a balance, where the smaller bacterium was giving something useful to the host, and vice versa. In fact, this sort of thing happens all the time today. If you coculture E. coli with amebas, an occasional ameba will evolve with bacteria perpetually inside--and the evolved bacteria can no longer grow outside. They are slipping down the evolutionary slide through endosymbiosis, to eventual become an organelle.
But the price of endosymbiosis is evolutionary degeneration. Genetically, the mitochondrion has lost all but a handful of its 4,000-odd bacterial genes, down to 37 in humans. Most of these genes conduct respiration (obtaining energy to make ATP). From the standpoint of existence as an organism, that seems pathetic. The mitochondrion is a ghost of its former identity.
But is it so simple? Did mitochondria really stay around just for that one function? If that’s all the genes that are left, then how do mitochondria contribute to tissue-specific processes such as apoptosis (programmed cell death), production of oxygen radicals, and even making hormones?
Surprise--about 1,500 of those former mito genes are alive and well in the nuclear chromosomes. How did the genes get there? First, mitochondrial DNA replication is error-prone; errors accumulate there much faster than in the nuclear DNA. Second, DNA replication often duplicates genes--the leading way to evolve new functions. Suppose a duplicated gene ends up in the nucleus. It will stay there, while the mitochondrial original decays by mutation. Thus, over many generations, the mitochondria outsource their genes to the nucleus.
Is this starting to sound familiar? As Adam Gopnik writes, "We have been outsourcing our intelligence, and our humanity, to machines for centuries." Long ago, since Adam and Eve put on clothes (arguably the first technology) we have manipulated parts of our environment to do things our bodies now don't have to do (like grow thick fur). We invented writing, printing and computers to store our memories. Most of us can no longer recall a seven-digit number long enough to punch it into a phone. Now we invent computers to beat us at chess and Jeopardy, and baby-seal robots to treat hospital patients.
As we invent each new computer task, we define it away as not "really" human. Memory used to be the mark of intelligence--before computers were invented. Now it's just mechanical--but as Foer notes in Moonwalking with Einstein, memory is closely tied to imagination. Once we can no longer remember, how shall we imagine? And if all our empathy is outsourced to dementia-caring robots that look and sound like baby seals, what will be left for us to feel? Poetry and music--don't mention it, computers already compose works that you can’t distinguish from human.
Yet we humans still turn the machines on and off (well... sometimes). The machines aren't actually replacing us, so much as extending us. That's the world of my Frontera series. Humans still program the robots and shape the 4D virtual/real worlds we inhabit. But those worlds now shape us in turn. Small children exhibit new reflexes--instead of hugging their toys, they poke and expect a response.
The real question is, what will be the essential human thing left that we contribute to the machines we inhabit? Will we look like the "brainship" of Anne McCaffrey's The Ship who Sang--or more like the energy source of the Matrix? Mitochondria-hosting cells ushered in an extraordinary future of multicellular life forms, never possible before. Human-hosting machines may create an even more amazing future world. But if so, what essential contribution will remain human?