Strong AI never shows up. It turns out it’s just too hard to code human-like cognition from scratch. By the same token, it’s nearly impossible to build any sort of mind uploading system due to the complexity of the system of nerves, impulses, chemicals, and abstract networks that form the human mind, nor does information uploading or “jacking in” ever work effectively.
Luckily, none of this matters. The human body can be augmented with machinery, and the human mind can augment machinery. Robotic armor is produced that works in a perfect feedback loop with muscle impulses to magnify human strength and constitution. High-bandwidth connections and user interface technology allow people to pilot unmanned robots (drones, spiders, trucks, subs, and more) in dangerous territories. People wear holographic glasses that provide an always-persistent heads-up display or any other visual overlay. Electrodes buried under the skin report data on orientation, time, or even alerts—these eventually become imperceptible as sensations as the mind correlates the data, leading to perfect senses of direction, duration, and even subvocal communication.
Masses of rat stem cells stimulated to become neurons are connected to small electrodes and let to form their own networks around them. They interpret the data fed to them, respond, and are conditioned. Mindgoo takes over the most menial and repetitive of tasks using its robot fingers.
Much of the menial yet skilled work is done from home, remotely, through large-screen visual displays and suits that sense movement and can give feedback. Workers communicate over audio link from miles away as they drive dump trucks, fly planes, and perform surgeries.
Augmentation becomes a way of life. Virtual and real are no longer seen as a dichotomy. Everything has a computer on board, everything is connected wirelessly. Mindgoo not only controls physical processes, but also abstract ones over the web. It mines financial data for patterns and organizes warehouse deliveries to be more efficient. People no longer tie their identities most closely to their bodies, but rather to the web of information that constantly surounds them. They can throw their awareness across the world or into abstract spaces.
Some countries clamp down on this, and new technofascist states pop up, using this connection to exert top-down control of their populace. Other areas completely decentralize, forming ad-hoc networks of information and resources. The technofascist states ruthlessly expand in order to secure resources, but the computing load placed on the network of mindgoo and augmented overlords who control the whole mess becomes too much as the network grows too complicated. It is not external democracy but internal technological limits that sends asunder the newest wave of totalitarianism as its networks fragment and violently collapse inwards against their most powerful nodes.
As the human mind becomes more abstract and less aware of the physical world, its physical footprint doesn’t shrink. People are still just as large and made of meat. So are the cows that feed them. Computers are still constructed of silicon and gold. And oil and coal plants still power them while spewing carbon into the sky. Storms become worse and worse on the coasts. The weather inland varies between scorching hot in the summer to freezing cold in the winter. Food production stagnates as the weather makes farming less efficient by percentage points a year while the ocean slowly is drained of readily edible fish.
Space exploration continues mostly through robots, both classical and goo’d. Some genetically modified humans fly pilot swarms of ships, each sitting weightless in a central hub as they direct their eye’d tendrils to mine asteroids and dump resources to Earth orbit. The networks of drones, computers, and goo are each headed by one solitary human, her awareness spread throughout the system.
Energy, minerals, and metals are abundant, but food is a dwindling resource as the ecosystems on the Earth are overtaxed, malnourished, and wasted. Humanity has lost all pretense of thinking the physical world is somehow more real than any of the others it has created for itself. The Earth slowly chokes itself until a tipping point is reached where first food becomes expensive, then largely unavailable, then the electricity becomes scarce. Humanity is unaccustomed to living without its overlays and instant communication, and many people violently unplugged from the maelstrom go mad, unable to handle the banality of being but a single, fleshy human being. A runaway positive feedback loop then consumes the whole system as the humans it so depends on no longer have the resources and skills they need to be physically self-sufficient.
It is the poorest countries which see the least change. In the deep Amazon, the last uncontacted tribe continues its business as it has for the past tens of millennia. Steppe hordes rain south on a China whose populace has grown weak and unfocused after the collapse of technofascism. African villages subsisting on farming find their cheap text devices no longer feed them information, and so they throw them away and do not think back. Meanwhile, the so-called self-sufficient distributed networks that were once the United States violently collapse as during one rolling brown-out just enough vital network nodes are brought offline than power stations loose their connections to their workers, Mindgoo looses its human interpreters, and soon 90% of the networks are without power and never coming back online, sending a shockwave through the developed world as it realizes that their delicate import-export economies are going to collapse themselves within a year.
In the distributed Americas, uncoordinated mass suicides take place as connected abstract beings realize that they will forever be trapped in one single body and find it an existence worse than death. In France a coordinated mass suicide takes place as the country pulls its own network’s plug. Many people spend their last days enjoying their monuments, cathedrals, and countrysides before settling in for bed without the will to rise in the morning.
Five years later and the world has reverted to barbarism. Many are dead, there is no government beyond that of the strong and resourceful, and all but the most analog of technologies are beyond the understanding of most to fix or even use. Tribesmen view their days pre-collapse as a sort of dream state, a collection of disjointed images, sounds, and sensations from senses they no longer posses. Meaning can be gleaned from some memories, but not from others. Existence is no longer a shimmering haze of glitz and information, but just what surrounds them: a bleak landscape of tribal warfare over scant food, rarely potable water, and deteriorating technology. Another ten years and the weakest tribes are scattered and assimilated. The time before is referred to in sacred tones, its images and lessons framed by a religious worship of the omniscient beings that all men once were. The few networked, technological compounds designed to survive just such a mess do, but without the worldweb they are a faint echo of humanity’s former glory, living monuments to a time gone by.
The asteroid miners survive on. Long used to radio relay communication and the black of space, they use their stored libraries and self-repairing fabricant shops to build more drones, ships, and germinated people. As the centuries drag on, they engineer their physical, formerly human component to be smaller and smaller, a jar of bone and fat to preserve a human brain. They build fusion engines and rockets. They grow and plug in multiple human components to each other, children to mothers, so that even as one dies another can take over. These immortal ship-beings work on a long time scale, and eventually in their move towards the ort cloud engineer out all their strictly human components, opting instead for the cool efficiency of goo. They engineer out their own consciousness to play the long game, building ecological systems out of themselves from the minerals they find at the edge of the solar system.
On the Earth, the planet becomes more hostile to human inhabitants each decade as the feedback loops of weather system, permanently changed by humanity’s presence, fall into new equilibria. Over much of the globe tribes become smaller and disappear. The last technological enclaves fail after a collapse that has lasted longer than even the most pessimistic had bet on. The polynesian islands become the last retreat of a humanity which survives by brute force alone, moving from island to island while taking from the sea all they can. Their culture remembers little of humanity’s past, and the fallen wonders they sometimes come upon are explained as being artifacts from when the gods roamed the Earth.