The ongoing coronavirus pandemic could possibly not appear to be like an apparent cue for pondering about biological transcendence. But the weird point is that in our response to this crisis we have been unwitting contributors in just these types of an function.
The concept of transcendence goes back again a extensive way, underneath a range of names and guises. In many religions it captures the idea of deities or phenomena that exist in some way independently of the physical universe and even beyond physical guidelines. Philosophers like Immanuel Kant modified facets of this principle and produced a label for items that are actually unknowable and that exist outside of knowledge by itself.
But in latest times transcendence has grow to be linked with the idea of humans likely past our default kind of consciousness frequently conflated with the mystical thought of “ascendance” to some bigger type of existence—a trope eagerly adopted by scores of not-definitely-making an attempt-incredibly-challenging science fiction stories, motion pictures and futurists. Most of the slightly additional-grounded versions of these speculations see people and machines melding into something new. It’s possible our consciousnesses and memories—our “self”—could be uploaded to immortal electronic form, swirling close to the online or in some all-powerful supercomputer.
These fantasies are very alluring (and they actually are fantasies at this level we never understand consciousness or the whole physical basis of memory and habits, so the odds of mapping “you” into a device seem to be fairly trim). They are also a excellent distraction from the surprising and incredibly actual illustrations of such transformations that are taking place ideal now, below our noses.
Take the novel coronavirus SARS-Cov-2. Its genetic material is a one strand of RNA with 29,903 nucleotides (the “letters” of the genetic code frequent to all identified lifetime on Earth) that contain facts for about 30 genes for building proteins. (A virus is “simply a piece of terrible news wrapped up in protein,” in words and phrases that have been attributed to biologists Peter and Jean Medawar.)
Whatsoever the precise origin of this distinct sort of coronavirus, the informational articles of that strand of RNA had, until early 2020, never ever existed in the planet in any other kind than the polymerized nucleotides of biochemistry. Every single solitary copy of SARS-Cov-2 was a bundle of molecules and practically nothing extra. But then, just about right away, it jumped to an fully new substrate.
Starting off from the innards of PCR sequencing devices and engineering like nanopore gadgets (that basically pull a strand of DNA or RNA through a molecular sensor that registers diverse electrical costs for distinctive nucleotides) the viral RNA was transformed into digital details symbolic representations that are by themselves encoded as little electrical or magnetic bits in silicon memory or hard drives. From listed here the informational content of the viral RNA was duplicated: throughout storage devices, by way of the world wide web, into cloud servers, onto people’s laptops, mobile telephones, flash drives and to some extent into their brains as trained researchers pored more than the gene sequences and their affiliated molecular machinery.
This viral transcendence has not just stopped at the replication of symbolic information and facts nevertheless. That identical data now interacts with the planet in ways that it could not when locked up in viral RNA. Now it influences human exercise and conduct. We operate laptop or computer codes, we produce scientific content, we make pieces of the RNA artificially in labs, and in the situation of our mRNA vaccines we produce trillions, even quadrillions, of duplicates of small parts of the authentic RNA, the sonnets of spike protein coding, and ship them throughout the planet in which they go into human flesh and cells and ribosomal machinery.
The informational material of this one form of virus has unfold across the Earth in all of these forms, electronic and synthetic, to a degree that may even look at to the terrifying effectiveness of the initial biological sorts by themselves. It has also now exerted its affect on the surroundings containing it in techniques that the unique form could hardly ever have. Electrical power has flowed in every sequencing analyze and every file down load or protein structural prediction. Lab products and vaccine creation services have been fabricated or expanded, and humans have scurried this way and the other as the genomic information and facts has been wrangled and examined.
In a extremely genuine feeling, the coronavirus uploaded itself to equipment sort and then over and above. Even if we were being to eradicate its biological variety from the planet it would dwell on as a digital species, possibly mostly dormant, but from the point of view of self-propagating facts, time is fairly irrelevant. If the digitized edition of the virus is uninspected for a century or two it doesn’t make a difference, it even now continues to exist mainly because it can, winning the recreation of Darwinian evolution.
Just like our possess “selfish genes,” the viral genes constructed from nucleotides are really only a hassle-free implementation, or instantiation, of a kind of information that describes its individual procedures of propagation (albeit in compressed kind). But it took the evolutionary progress of a species like ours, and our subsequent technological evolution, to generate the prospect for viral transcendence into wholly nonbiological type. There may possibly be a lesson in that: we may possibly like to feel that we can put into practice some variation of our very own transcendence at the time working day, but possibly it will be a little something else that results in the prospect and a lot more or significantly less does it no matter whether we want it to transpire or not. We may well not add ourselves to device forms the machines may possibly upload us, just like we do for viruses.
The way that details propagates in the globe is examined in a lot extra depth in my new e-book The Ascent of Data (Riverhead, June 2021).
This is an viewpoint and evaluation posting.