Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Living in Virtual Space

You may recall last week's article entitled A Revolutionary Mission to Mars. This article proposed that NASA send only the disembodied brains of astronauts -- rather than their entire bodies -- to Mars. This approach offers many advantages, so many in fact that body-free space travel is inevitable. It is likely to be far too expensive and dangerous to ever send humans to Mars if their bodies have to go along for the ride. See the article for details.

One of the big benefits of the moon missions of the 20th century was all of the new technology that NASA spun off. The big spin-off from the Mars missions will be the technology for supporting and interfacing to disembodied brains.

The article generated a lot of feedback, most of it claiming that: A) the idea is disgusting, so B) no one would ever let their brain and body be separated, and thus C) it will never happen.

I'm not so sure. Here's why: There are millions people today who would immediately separate their brains from their bodies if they had the chance.

The most obvious group who would willingly choose this option are people with terminal diseases such as inoperable cancer. A person in this situation is trapped by a body that no longer serves its purpose. Many people with terminal illnesses would push the eject button and go body-free the instant they had the opportunity. Another obvious group are people whose bodies are aging very badly while their minds remain sharp. Here too the body is a trap, and releasing the brain from the body solves the problem.

Lots of other people would go this route. Think about the emphasis that humans place on physical beauty. This article points out that 8.7 million Americans opted for plastic surgery in 2003. And this post points out that we are now seeing so many images of artificial, "perfect" people in the media that it is becoming impossible for "real" people to live up to their standards. In addition, many people are born with genes that prevent them from ever being truly "physically beautiful", no matter how hard a plastic surgeon tries.

All of this emphasis on appearance would make disembodied brains a natural path for those seeking permanent beauty. A disembodied brain would live almost exclusively in virtual space, and would therefore be able to choose any body and face he/she wants, with the option to change appearance at a moment's notice (see Manna for some ideas on where this leads).

What will therefore happen is that we will have the virtual, computer-generated space where all of these disembodied brains "live". Everyone in this virtual space will be able to look any way he or she chooses. In addition, virtual space is infinite, and infinitely moldable. It will grow and improve daily. Just look at the virtual worlds being created for gaming today. Now imagine how rich and varied those environments will be in 20 or 30 years.

One possible scenario that is easy to imagine looks like this: the virtual space inhabited by body-free people will be getting bigger and better every day. Inhabitants will be able to swim under virtual oceans, float weightless in virtual space ships, fly freely in virtual skies, run through beautiful virtual meadows free of pollen, ski on virtual mountain ranges without feeling cold, etc. The possibilities for virtual dating and porn in this virtual universe boggle the mind. And everyone will be beautiful. People living outside this virtual realm will feel left out, and will therefore opt in to a body-free life because virtual space will be better than real space. It will be analogous to the process that drove people off the farms and into the cities.

Eventually, the majority of people will live as disembodied brains, at least in the latter parts of their lives as their bodies fail them. This transition strikes me as inevitable, as soon as the technology is available to live the body-free lifestyle.

NASA should therefore begin research on disembodied brain technology immediately.

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