Future of driving: Cyborgs, avatars & shapeshifting cars
In the future not so far away, you and your car may be the same thing...
Imagine a scenario. Your neighbour is a professional soldier on retirement. She has a history of operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. She loves driving fast bikes to grasp the lost feeling of adrenaline. Or she “loved” driving as she had crashed and became immobilised a year ago. An army veteran on a wheelchair.
Today, some white collars approached her on her yard. Some nerds. You heard that they represented the federal research-and-development facility specialising in cybernetics and prosthetics. They offered your neighbour to become a guinea-pig and test their newest techs. The new therapy. If successful, your neighbour will be able to walk again. If not, nothing will change for her.
Naturally, your neighbour agreed.
In five months you saw her again. Riding a bike.
In a year, you saw her running faster than a car, so strong she became. Her reflexes, dexterity, and coordination also improved; she started a career of a bike racer.
In three years, she became a CCS champion at Daytona and holder of numerous records. The invincible and unrivalled.
The therapy was more than a success. A rumour spreads that she can connect to her bike’s computer and drive as good as no other living being. She is on a way to becoming a part of her bike, or even a bike herself.
Now, you are wrong to think this is a fantastic scenario. Many injured American soldiers will likely undergo surgeries and bionic upgrades to be able to walk again. Or to use their hands. It the past, they were meticulously trained to take risks and fight against circumstances. Today, one by one, these soldiers may become better than the rest of their kin. Often merging with machines. Contemporary technologies (almost) allow for this.
Moreover, it is not only me who notices the impact of mass computerisation and bioengineering on our lifestyles and identities. The American philosopher and futurist Raymond Kurzweil published three books with predictions about how human species will gradually intertwine with artificial intelligence (AI) in the 21st century. Because, well, there is no other evolutionary option.
In his first book “The Age of Intelligent Machines”(1990), Kurzweil predicted that around the year 2000 the US researchers would invent robotic legs for the paraplegic people to walk. That was a bullseye prediction as the Sacros Robotics arrived with its functional exoskeleton exactly in 2000; many other companies offered similar inventions as well. Apart from this, Kurzweil claimed that “cybernetic chauffeurs” would come to be in the 2000s. These were portrayed as computing units mounted on existing cars and fine-tuned to transport goods and passengers with no human engagement. They would operate via wireless information exchange with other units and in-road sensors. The prediction came true again; in 2001, the European Commission funded a CYBERnetic CARS project. Also, Kurzweil speculated that a computer would pass the Turing Test in around fifty years from 1990 and, therefore, become the first true AI (i.e. communicating in an indistinguishable manner from a human being). We are yet to check this out.
In “The Age of Spiritual Machines” (1999), the second book, Kurzweil argued that medicine would reach new heights by 2019. People with spinal cord injuries would be able to climb stairs with the help of computer-controlled nerve stimulation and exoskeletal walkers. Moreover, computer implants would become quite common in human bodies. The same year, self-driving systems were supposed to embrace all transportation chores. Kurzweil went as far as to predict that human beings would be prohibited from cruising highways unassisted (which did not kinda come true last year). At least, the on-board computer system would constantly monitor actions of biological drivers and take control over the vehicle if discovered irresponsible behaviour (which kinda come true).
In 2029, which is less than ten years from now, Kurzweil predicted that the computer implants would become a necessity, especially implants into eyes and ears. They will establish an instant human-to-machine communication, record all sounds and images, and provide “unlimited” Internet-access. Some advanced implants will connect to the brain directly and enhance its functions, such as sensation, memory, learning speed, and overall intelligence.
In the same 2029, computers will finally pass the Turing Test and initiate a debate about electronic consciousness. The AI will continue to grow exponentially whereas human intelligence will become non-competitive due to its “linear” sluggishness. So, the purely biological species are likely to lose the debate.
In 2099, according to Kurzweil, the immortality will happen. The concept of “life expectancy” will become irrelevant due to the development of medicine (cybernetics?). Those people, who choose to live forever, including the representatives of the Baby Boomer generation, will have a chance to do so. As for the role of computers, their processing capacities will exceed natural thinking by far; the 1000 USD worth computer will be a billion times more intelligent than all minds of the humankind combined. This will lead to a concordant merger of natural and artificial brains. Moreover, the biological bodies will become somewhat redundant as computer-based beings will be capable of existing in different robotic bodies in multiple places at a time.
The third Kurzweil’s book, “The Singularity is Near” (2005) is, well, about achieving singularity in its technological sense. This will be the moment when the AI “utterly defeats” natural brains in thinking capacity and starts a chain of exponential and irreversible technological processes. I can compare it to entering the point-of-no-return in the black hole’s gravity; no matter how hard the thrusters try, a vessel will invariably slide into the unknown. The technological singularity will allow every new generation of AI to invent even more capable next generation, which will lead to an endless cycle of improvements. This resembles the logic of Cybermen from “Doctor Who” series except for the Cybermen being “good guys” this time. As just the singularity is achieved, the machines will take over the development of everything and an ordinary human being will no longer be able to comprehend surroundings. According to Kurzweil, this should happen in the year 2045.
The technological singularity will require a few preparational stages, though. In the 2020s, people should gain a god-like power to make themselves younger by rejuvenating all tissues and organs. Another god-like power will be the ability to halt or cancel disease and ageing, thus prolonging the biological existence. Both god powers will likely be executed through pouring nano-robots into the veins which will re-build and maintain human bodies from the inside. A new existential breakthrough will happen in the 2030s when the living consciousness becomes uploadable into computers. Many human beings will likely abandon their nature-made “containers” and become software-based. They will exist indefinitely inside the Internet and use tiny robots – or foglets – to “summon” their physical bodies whenever they want or need. This “summoning” will make the distinction between virtual and real worlds rather irrelevant. I mean, those muscular and/or sexy-looking characters from the video games you spend hours creating may actually become your avatars in reality. You may also opt for Robocops.
With the technical singularity in place, Kurzweil speculates that humans-and-machines will gain the ability to build planet-sized computers by 2099, which highlights the immense impact of singularity on technological advancement. Mates, read it again: we will be able to build planets (Cybertron?) in around 80 years time! Yet, in 2045 and onwards, each of us will individually decide whether to retain our consciousness in a “limited” biological body or to switch to the improvable “software mode.”
Surely, mates, you may find all that futurist stuff unbelievable and mind-blowing, but Kurzweil’s predictions are historically regarded as accurate.
Moreover, if you take a closer look around, you may notice quite a few “singularity markers.”
For instance, Elon Musk and his Neuralink. The project was launched in 2016 with a short-term goal to treat and, hopefully, cure serious brain injuries through developing specialised devices and interfaces. Its long-run goal was to accelerate human enhancement and achieve a symbiosis with AI; the latter, as Musk believes, poses an existential threat to humanity and should be kept at bay. As you may already deduce, the mainstream idea behind the Neuralink is a discreet cyberisation. Apart from the Neuralink, Musk designed and develops the Starlink. This project is about placing a network of satellites in low Earth orbit which are expected to provide Internet access everywhere and to everyone. In this light, the Neuralink-enriched beings will enhance exponentially and uninterruptedly by maintaining their in-built devices connected to the Starlink network. Last but not least, Musk’s plans to “occupy Mars” will be much more feasible if humans could upload their minds into computers and operate in radiation-resistant robotic bodies instead of quite vulnerable DNA-based “containers”. In a word, Musk makes us a new-type civilization by taking small steps for an individual, but major for humankind.
It just popped up in my head. X Æ A-12 is the name of Elon’s son, isn’t it? Don’t you find this name a bit too… cybernetic?
Apart from Musk, we have Aubrey de Grey, a biomedical gerontologist, in our team. In 2007, he and Michael Rae co-authored a book “Ending Aging” which asserted that people could (theoretically) keep their biological bodies young and healthy as long as they wished. For this to happen, de Grey drafted a Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (or SENS) project plan. The latter advocates the ultimate necessity for state-of-the-art medical treatment of seven by-products of metabolism which damage our body during our lifetime. If we learn how to mitigate, prevent, or repair this “life damage” on a molecular and cellular level, the ageing will become irrelevant and the death will not be the “final destination” any more. We will also get rid of pathologies and degenerations which often torment people on retirement. De Grey strongly believes that we can cope with ageing within a few decades with no cyberisation; to do so, he and his team work hard on inventing new technologies and fixing the seven major by-products of metabolism.
An interesting fact. In 2008, de Grey stated that the first human being to live a thousand years had already been born and was probably at the age of 50-60 years. This statement is, well, much in line with what Kurzweil predicted about the chances for immortality for the Baby Boomers.
You may ask me now: How on hell does this cyber-and-bio stuff relate to cars?
Very directly, I will answer.
In his interview to “Digital Trends” in 2017, James May asserted that the transition to AI-driven cars was inevitable for the sake of efficiency. At the same time, the human part of the automotive future would be very bright. Car enthusiasts and their supercars would dominate the fun-driving segment:
“I think if you look to the future when motoring becomes a hobby, the cars that will survive, actually, are things like Ferraris. Because we won’t need cars to get about. That job will be taken by something else. There won’t be people who are driving cars simply because that’s the best way of going about their business. It will be a hobby. [Cars] will be owned by enthusiasts. And driven on certain closed roads, I think, and race-tracks. And that sort of thing … In many ways, the future of cars is extremely bright for people who like them. Because the future is full of Ferraris and Lamborghinis. Exciting stuff like that. Nissan GTRs. It’s great.”
I bet it is wrong. With all my respect for James, the future will be different. Though, no less bright. It will be limited by your imagination only.
My first point is that human beings (intelligent creatures?) may become cars themselves. On arrival of the technological singularity, many of our kin will decide to merge with machines and transfer our consciousness into robotic bodies. Some of these bodies may look like posh boxes on wheels. In other words, you may become the KITT from “Knight Rider” in any chassis you imagine.
My second point is that if you decide to stick to de Grey’s solutions and remain in a forever-young biological body, you will also be able to drive any car you imagine. Depending on your need and mood, the car will be constructed in real-time by foglets combining in the desired shape. Your car may have as many specs, gadgets, and options as you wish; even those non-existing today.
My third point is that, well, in the post-2045 world the cars may become redundant as such (unless you want to drive them because of nothing-else-to-do). Get ready for many other exciting things! For instance, your consciousness may travel between computers and reconfigure itself in any place and any shape you imagine. Like Terminator Model T-800, you will emerge from the shining ball of light.
On that futuristic note, go and get some healthy food. You should preserve your body and consciousness untouched before the AI kicks in and passes the Turing Test. At least by that time.