Artificial Wombs & Virtual Childhood

About a month ago, transhumanist Zoltan Istvan – who created a bit of an unrelated bruhahaha in my Feedly – wrote about artificial wombs, saying they were inevitable and would do a lot of good for society:

Of all the transhumanist technologies coming in the near future, one stands out that both fascinates and perplexes people. It’s called ectogenesis: raising a fetus outside the human body in an artificial womb.

It has the possibility to change one of the most fundamental acts that most humans experience: the way people go about having children. It also has the possibility to change the way we view the female body and the field of reproductive rights.

Naturally, it’s a social and political minefield.

The whole article is a fascinating read. I don’t really have a stance one way or another towards it. I think many women would be happy to have their biological offspring be raised outside their body, if only because of the physical strain that takes place. Others (both women and men) probably would find that very notion offensive and decline to partake. Whatever. But I’m not here to really critique Zoltan’s particular view of transhumanism (other than I think his timetable is way too short.)

It was just, looking at this article, it made me think of another idea of transhumanism that has long bounced around inside of my brain. In a fictional form, it would go somewhat like this:

Ectogenesis was the first step towards radical reproductive liberation. The first two generations of ectogenesis children – derogatorily called the “pod people” by many – suffered social ostracism and persecution, but within fifty years roughly two thirds of all children were born in pods and the stigma disappeared.

But it wasn’t enough.

Ectogenesis was still time consuming, and you still had to raise the child after decanting. Studies in virtual brain emulation had long ago bore fruit, to the point where a identical simulation was possible. Scientists began a brave experiment where they took the genetic samples of two volunteers, combined it to form a zygote in a pod, then simultaneously created a virtual copy in a virtual environment. The virtual brain developed while the physical brain was not allowed to develop consciousness; the virtual brain was then, through nanoprobes, downloaded into the fetus after nine months of development.

That didn’t really change anything, but it did prove that virtual brain development was possible. The next generation of experiments went farther. Incorporating growth acceleration technology that had originally been perfected for orbital agriculture habitats, scientists were able to take the zygote straight to twenty years of age in only nine months. They also sped up the virtual environment, creating an entire society (complete with eidolons of the parents and relatives and real world people) that would be an effective “proving ground” for the growing mind. When all was said and done, the body and mind that emerged from the pod was chronologically only nine months old, but had twenty years of subjective physical and mental experience, and was ready to enjoy real life society immediately.

Of course, there were criticisms. More biological, “natural” humans saw this as too much of an aberration; the virtuals scoffed at the notion anyone would want to live in meatspace. Yet over time this mixed virtual-biological lifestyle took hold. Within six generations, roughly 85% of all humans had spent their first twenty subjective years in a virtual simulation before being downloaded into a specially grown body, derived from the genetic samples of two or more “parents.”

However, now the definition of human had changed dramatically. No longer were the “naturals” considered “natural,” they were merely “full-stack biologics” living mostly in segregated neighborhoods and even in some cases reservations. The virtual born – or “Virtborn” – became natural, but with it was a loss of emotion, a growing collective mindset, and a subsequent decline and fall in the arts and science. The “biologics,” in turn, began to develop increasingly eccentric cultural traits in order to “prove” they were the true humans, including bringing up ancient human practices such as zoot suits, black coffee, and a particularly brutal form of physical competition designed to identify “manly” qualities among males called “hockey.”

Okay, so I kinda let myself go at the end there. But the idea has been in my head for some time. I don’t know if it’s feasible – though it probably is. I’m also certain I didn’t come up with it and read about it elsewhere, though I can’t find anything about the topic at the moment.

I thought about it again when I attended a event on Sam Harris’ book tour. He was asked a question about computers and ethics, and he stated that (and here I must paraphrase for my memory is terrible) that, if we could replace a malfunctioning neuron in our brain with an artificial neuron that completely replicates the replaced neuron’s behavior, why not over time gradually replace all of them? And in that case, would we not have a fully artificial brain? And would not that brain be conscious?

That idea of just gradually replacing all our biology until we’re completely metal fascinates me. I mean, if that’s not “transhumanism,” I don’t know what is. Instead of an apocalyptic war between humanity and the machines, we instead have a gradual evolution from biological to synthetic life. Aside from the fascination, I’m not sure how I should feel about that. Is it a good thing? What will we give up to do that? But, since I’m a libertarian transhumanist, as long as it’s voluntary, it should be okay. I think most aspects of transhumanism are glorious and want to see them come about, to alleviate suffering and create more enjoyment. So long as we don’t have early adopters and retros blowing each other up…