Most discussion of uploading talks of uploading from the inside out: simply, a biological person undergoes a disruptive procedure which digitises their mind. The digital mind then continues the person’s timeline as a digital existence, with all that entails.
The thing that stands out here is the disruptive nature of the process from biological to digital being. It is not only a huge step to undergo such a transformation, but few things in reality operate in such binary terms. More commonly, things happen gradually.
Being an entrepreneur and also having a keen interest in the future, I both respect audacious visions, and study how they come to be realised. Very rarely does progress come from someone investing a bunch of resources in a black-box process that ends in a world-changing breakthrough. Much more commonly, massive innovations are realised through a process of iteration and exploration, fueled by a need that motivates people to solve thousands of problems, big and small. Massive trends interact with other innovations to open up opportunities that when exploited cause a further acceleration of innovation. Every successful startup and technology, from Facebook to Tesla and from mobile phones to modern medicine can be understood in these terms.
With this lens in mind, how might uploading be realised? This is one potential timeline, barring AI explosion or existential catastrophy.
It is perhaps useful to explore the notion of “above/below the API”. A slew of companies have formed, often called “Uber for X” or “AirBnB for Y”, solving needs we have, through a computer system, such as a laptop or a mobile phone app. The app might issue a call to a server via an API, and that server may delegate the task to some other system, often powered by other humans. The original issuer of the command then gets their need covered, minimising direct contact with other humans, the traditional way of having our needs covered. It is crucial to understand that API-mediated interactions win because they are superior to their traditional alternative. Once they were possible, it was only natural for them to proliferate. As an example, compare the experience of taking a taxi with using Uber.
And so computer systems are inserted between human-to-human interactions. This post is composed on a computer, through which I will publish it in a digital location, where it might be seen by others. If I am to hear their response to it, it will also be mediated by APIs. Whenever a successful new API is launched, fortunes are made and lost. An entire industry, venture capital, exists to fund efforts to bring new APIs into existence, each new API making life easier for its users than what came before, and adding additional API layers.
As APIs flood interpersonal space, humans gain superpowers. Presence is less and less important, and a person anywhere in the connected world can communicate and effect change anywhere else. And with APIs comes control of personal space and time. Personal safety increases both by decreasing random physical contact and by always being connected to others who can send help if something goes wrong. The demand for connectivity and computation is driving networking everywhere, and the cost of hardware to fall through the floor.
Given the trends that are in motion, what’s next? Well, if computer-mediated experience is increasing, it might grow to the point where every interaction a human has with the world around them will be mediated by computers. If this sounds absurd, think of noise-cancelling headphones. Many of us now use them not to listen to music, but to block the sound from our environment. Or consider augmented reality. If the visual field, the data pipeline of the brain, can be used to provide critical, or entertaining, context about the physical environment, who would want to forego it? Consider biofeedback: if it’s easy to know at all times what is happening within our bodies and prevent things from going wrong, who wouldn’t want to? It’s not a question of whether these needs exist, but of when technology will be able to cover them.
Once most interaction is API-mediated, the digital world switches from opt-in to opt-out. It’s not a matter of turning the laptop on, but of turning it off for a while, perhaps to enjoy a walk in nature, or for a repair. But wouldn’t you want to bring your augmented reality goggles that can tell you the story of each tree, and ensure you’re not exposed to any pathogens as you wander in the biological jungle? As new generations grow up in a computer-mediated world, fewer and fewer excursions into the offline will happen. Technology, after all, is what was invented after you were born. Few of us consider hunting and gathering our food or living in caves to be a romantic return to the past. When we take a step backward, perhaps to signal virtue, like foregoing vaccination or buying locally grown food, we make sure our move will not deprive us of the benefits of the modern world.
Somewhere around the time when APIs close the loop around us or even before then, the human body will begin to be modified. Artificial limbs that are either plainly superior to their biological counterparts, or better adapted to that world will make sense, and brain-computer interfaces (whether direct or via the existing senses) will become ever more permanent. As our bodies are replaced with mechanical parts, the brain will come next. Perhaps certain simple parts will be easy to replace with more durable, better performing ones. Intelligence enhancement will finally be possible by adding processing power natural selection alone could never have evolved. Gradually, step by small step, the last critical biological components will be removed, as a final cutting of the cord with the physical world.
Humans will have digitised themselves, not by inventing a machine that takes flesh as input and outputs ones and zeroes, not by cyberpunk pioneers jumping into an empty digital world to populate it. We will have done it by making incremental choices, each one a sound rational decision that was in hindsight inevitable, incorporating inventions that made sense, and in the end it will be unclear when the critical step was made. We will have uploaded ourselves simply in the course of everyday life.