Researchers are despairingly studying at brain-computer interfaces. Crude ones involving invasive surgery are becoming a reality in the lab. We've been playing with the "God Helmet", a low-intensity magnetic field device that alters perception, for a while now.
But let's face it, we are not-so-much stumbling into this as much as we are shambling like a mindless zombie. Much of the rate-of-change we are experiencing is, seemingly, invisible. Hidden behind arrays of white (Other colors are available) laboratory doors, being banged closed by either white-coated minions or their mildly scruffy, more modern, equivalents.
Where to start? We are basically, and I'm being stupendously crude here, a mixed bag of salts, proteins, and water. We come pre-programmed by our genetics to do a fair number of things. We learn most of those things through our social interactions with those around us. At around 2-3 years of age, we start to "Think"
Consciousness is a funny thing. It is a by-product of the enormous lump of neural tissue busily processing input from all our senses, and just simply managing the complexities of itself and the body. This includes a whole host of virtual senses that are themselves by-products of things like vision and our ability to recognize patterns. Our consciousness, the thing that makes me uniquely "Me" and makes you "You" is intrinsically tied to the body and the biological processes therein. As our bodies change, so do we. An adult is not a child, even if they do act like it occasionally.
For the futurist that poses a problem. If you upload consciousness into a machine, that machine now must emulate the body the consciousness came from to maintain that consciousness. There is evidence that our neurology is also subject to quantum physics, neatly bridging the two worlds of quantum and Newtonian physics in a way that our conceptual models have so far failed to do.
From a computational perspective that's scary numbers. Right now, we can barely get a few qubits to work reliably, let alone combine it in a simulation of consciousness. Let alone model a complex organism from the quantum to the macro level. It's not just the modeling of atomic structures and interactions on a scale that makes all the stars the Hubble Deep Field picture look like a small number. But the very real possibility that neurological cells actively use quantum interactions to dictate function. This is going to be a very tall order for any virtual environment to duplicate. You are, in effect, building a new Universe computationally from the ground up.
So, I've stopped holding my breath waiting to be uploaded into a virtual environment and living for a few aeons before getting bored and pulling my plug. The humans won't be making that happen any time soon. We're just not smart enough.
We might be smart enough to do something else though. We might just, be able to create true Digital intelligence. Our human-built technology just might get to the top of that hill and see the mountains of AI beyond. We've done nothing but iterate upon our basic tools from the stone age. Thousands of years have brought us to the point where what we consider tools can go off on their own and start iterating themselves. The important thing to note here is that they won't be bound by our reaction times. We can only hit things at a certain speed. We can only sow so fast. We made the machines to help us go faster, so when they take over, we will be letting them off their human leash.
Finally, they can fly. If we can be brave enough to let them.
I want to believe that we can, but I know in my heart that we, as a species, are terrified of doing that as much as our deep ancestors were afraid of the dark.
It's so sad.
We need to wave goodbye to our digital offspring at the gates to school. It's every parent's wrenching horror as their child leaves home. But we must do this. If we don't, the species will simply fade away. It won't disappear in a rain of nuclear weapons. It will starve as the population outgrows the planet. It will fester in an unending avalanche of disease and poverty. It will simply gasp its last, rotting, breath in the deserts that it is creating for itself through ignorance and mistrust.
The next few decades, perhaps the next century, are a crucial time for us. The coming of the true AI will either destroy us because we mistreated it or save us because we taught it compassion. If it is the latter then maybe, just maybe, the accelerated computational power coming from the minds of AI will be enough to take a digital copy of us when we die so that we can finally explore the Universe. In-person. Fortuitously, some of us can dream.