Just last week I finally caught up with listening to the audio made available for the 2008 Singularity Summit. Interesting times might be coming, and soon.

One of the principal speakers was Ray Kurzweil, who for some time now has been promoting the idea that exponentially-improving information technology will at some point in the fairly near future allow humans to transcend biology. Either we’ll end up with computers so powerful that we’ll end up merging with them and living in a virtual reality, which, since we’re in control of it, and have access to artificial intelligences that can do things much better than we can, might as well be a virtual paradise. Or, alternatively as Neil Gershenfeld suggests at the Summit, computers will effectively become so small that physical matter itself will be as programmable as computer code.

All of which is very exciting if you’re into erotica, because it means that whatever fantasy you’re into can be made to simply pop out of the landscape whenever you like.

gynoid robot from Ghost In The Shell

You want a gynoid to join you on the green? A volcano lair full of sexy catgirls? A romantic, soulful tentacle monster to call your own? Well, in the not-so-far future all these could be yours. That is is the future is a view taken by Marshall Brain, who also spoke at the Summit (albeit on a slightly less sexy subject). Among the various essays available on his website is a short book called The Day You Discard Your Body which in turn contains a chapter called “The Lure of Porn” which suggests that by the mid-21st century at the latest lots of people will be spending all their time in what is in effect a fully-immersive gameworld with sexual attractions that put even the most vivid porn now available to shame.

Brain’s is only one example. With little effort one could find many, many others. Is a giant video game what the future really looks like?

Although I can’t deny the appeal of such a great video game, I am going to suggest that, at least for the further future, a far more radical possibility will be realized.

It begins with the realization that once technology gets powerful enough to reprogram physical matter and create greater-than-human intelligence, people themselves can be re-engineered. The likely first step will be a fine-grained emulation of the human brain. A working group at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute has produced a technology roadmap for this process (their long technical report is available in PDF format here) which gives a mean estimate of perhaps sixty years before this event happens. After that, the Kurzweil project of really reverse engineering the brain seems unlikely to be far behind.

The first-order erotic possibility that would naturally seem to be that you can step beyond just playing the greatest video game ever and play at being someone else. When we get good enough at re-doing the brain wiring, you can take a turn at not just looking like someone else, but experiencing the erotic possibilities inherent in what they are. Deirdre McCloskey, in her memoir of transitioning from male to female Crossing, says that “Most people, if they could magically do it, would like to try out the other gender for a day or a week or a month.” Right on, Deirdre! I most certainly would. Well, in the world with enough technology, you will be able to do just this, and you won’t have to rely on magic anymore (But note that Eliezer Yudkowsky cautions that a real switch of genders might be a bit more complicated than many people imagine.) And you needn’t just limit yourself to being a different gender. You be a whole new creature. Why just play at being a furry (or just play with virtual reality furries) when you can be one? Or that soulful, romantic tentacle beast, for that matter.

But I suspect that even this isn’t sufficiently radical to embrace the possibilities of the future. What lies beyond changing ourselves is the effacement of the very distinction between erotic and non-erotic experience.

What could this possibly mean? To begin with, fix in your minds that the huge hedonic rewards associated with good sex aren’t some necessary consequence of the laws of physics or the ontology of the world. They’re accidents of our evolutionary history as a species. Erotic experience piggybacks on structures — both anatomical and neural — that originally arose because they were functional in getting our ancestors to make babies. In civilized societies, the connection between erotic experience and physical reproduction is now only occasional, but the links to the old structures remain. Much of the wiring is still there, even if it’s powering stuff that was non-existent and un-imagined (I think, anyway) in the time of our Pleistocene ancestors.

But once we reverse-engineer the brain and learn how the wiring works, there’s no necessary reason to leave it unchanged. We can pull the wiring for erotic pleasure and rewire it for other purposes. Our purposes. No longer need it be the case that we experience orgasm when we’ve fooled some old brain structure into believing we’ve done a reproductive act. Why shouldn’t orgasm happen when we do other things? Like when we’ve written a story. Or proved a theorem. Or finished a tax return. (It is a measure of my fathomless cynicism that I think humanity will defeat death before it abolishes taxes.) What good thing happens is a consequence of how we’re wired, and I am sure people will want to redo the wiring.

As philosopher David Pearce tells us in his remarkable monograph The Hedonistic Imperative, good times are coming.

And soon, I hope.