Discussions of the Technological Singularity usually emphasize the prospect of a dramatic increase of human intelligence, but in a somewhat abstract way; to the uninitiated it can sound rather arid. For some reason the popular mind associates enhanced intelligence with emotional coldness. Of course the reality is just the opposite; from the animal world we can see that the higher the intelligence of a given species, the richer and more complex its emotional life, with that of humans being the richest and most complex of all. Emotional sophistication, like intelligence, is a manifestation of the processing power of the brain; and like intelligence, it will grow vastly in the future as we learn to enhance the brain's capacity and ultimately upload human minds into nanocircuitry, giving them access to unlimited processing power (more on uploading here
What I want to talk about here, though, is the richness of sensory experience. The ability to see in color, for example, enhances our quality of life; a color-blind person can function perfectly well, but the rest of us naturally feel that he is missing out on a lot. Yet my recent readings on evolutionary biology have brought home to me just how limited our sensory world actually is. Some flowers which appear quite drab to our eyes, for example, actually have patterns which are only visible in ultraviolet light; the insects that pollinate them can see ultraviolet wavelengths which are invisible to us. That is, they can see extra colors which we can't see. In fact, mammals generally have poorer
eyesight than other vertebrates; most mammals other than primates cannot see in color at all. Some reptiles have "tetrachromatic" retinas, with four types of color-sensitive cone cells to our three; human-built TV or computer screens, which use pixels in three primary colors to create pictures which seem realistic to us, would look pitifully inadequate to the eye of a turtle, if it had enough intelligence to grasp the concept of a picture at all. Aside from color, some animals, especially birds, have eyes with far higher resolution than ours -- they can see much smaller objects at a given distance than we can.
Once the flow of data from eye to brain and the processes within the brain which interpret the data are fully decoded, understood, and replicated, it will be possible to give ourselves any kind of enhanced vision we want -- ultraviolet, infrared, tetrachromatic, high-resolution, or anything else, along with the necessary brain functionality.
Beyond vision, some other animals have senses utterly different from ours. The sonar of dolphins and the echo-location of bats, for example, are long-distance senses which provide a surprisingly detailed "picture" of the world (a dolphin, for example, can tell by sonar which of two objects twenty feet away is nearer, when the separation between them is only an inch). It's probably a bit like vision and a bit like touch, but not really much like either. The "bill" of the platypus is an electrical-field sensor which can detect the tiny electrical currents produced by the muscles of the small animals it seeks to eat. Again, we can't imagine what this sensory experience "looks" or "feels" or "sounds" like (we don't even have the right word for it) to the platypus. But when we can scan and replicate our own brains, we can similarly scan and replicate those parts of those animals' brains which interpret their alien senses, not only incorporating those senses into our own repertoire if we choose, but even experiencing them the same way the dolphin or platypus does.
I was reminded of another range of possibilities when reading this post
by blogger "Sunny Insomniac", which includes a summary of a novel in progress:What if you woke one day to find yourself the same in your mind, but completely altered on the outside? How would you retain your identity? Who would you turn to? Family? They don't recognize you. Friends? They don't believe you. God? If He's listening, then He's not talking. What has happened to you isn't possible anyway. And yet, you look in the mirror and that reflection tells you it is reality.
Finding oneself in an unfamiliar body is an occasional theme in fiction, but as in this case, it is almost always involuntary and unwelcome (Kafka's Gregor Samsa comes to mind). When life is lived mostly in virtual reality, however, body type will be a matter of choice. Most discussions of virtual reality focus on the great experiential variety that will be available -- all the things people will be able to experience and do, in environments which may or may not resemble anything that the physical world has to offer, according to taste. At most, one assumes that one's virtual "body" will be permanently young and healthy, since there will be no reason to choose otherwise. But why stop there? Why not choose an entirely different type of body, from time to time, for variety? (For example, I have long thought that it would be interesting to experience life as a woman for a couple of weeks, just to see what it was like.) I doubt many people will be interested in trying out Gregor Samsa's transformation, but the form and sensory world of any animal, real or imaginary, will be available.
Ultimately the Singularity is about transcending limitations: the limitations on our intelligence imposed by the capacities of the organic brain, the limitation of a finite life span imposed by the aging and fragility of the organic body, the limitation to only a single physical location at any given time, the limitation of the intractable laws of the physical, non-virtual-reality universe. But it will also free us from the limitations imposed by the range of senses which evolution happened to bestow upon us, and the limitation of being a person of a fixed gender, race, or even species. All things will be a matter of choice.