"Radical Evolution:" On being Us

The Futurist reviews the book Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies, And What it Means to Be Human by Joel Garreau. The review takes note of four technology futures (is there another kind?): "Heaven," "Hell," "Muddling Through" and "Transcend."

Ray Kurzweil, slated to speak at the 2006 ideaFestival in Louisville, Kentucky, is listed as an "optimist," one who believes in a future where technology enables a better -- if not a heavenly -- life for all.

Kurzweil sees computers melding with humans to make flesh and blood an optional (though not necessarily optimal) choice for truly intelligent life. [Gregory] Stock believes inheritable genetic enhancements will boost human memory, strength, and life span to produce a super race, perhaps within the present generation. [K. Eric] Drexler envisions tiny machines capable of building any molecule to order one atom at a time, making it easy to produce any substance on demand. These machines might manufacture table-ready food to feed the hungry, turn water to wine, or change lead into gold. Collectively, such visionaries foresee the present headlong rush of new discoveries and technologies creating a "heaven" of affluence for all humankind.

On the other hand, "techno-pessimists" such as Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy:

argue that, once computer intelligence exceeds that of humans, our machines will rule us, reducing us in status to mere pets, curiosities, or irrelevant (and expendable) nuisances. [Francis] Fukuyama worries that the piecemeal introduction of genetic enhancement procedures--sure to be technically complex and expensive at first--will not only widen the existing gap between earth's haves and have-nots, but also make it permanently unbridgeable, producing violent conflict or eliminating universal human traits like sympathy and fellow feeling. [Sir Martin] Rees warns there is a whole range of technological disasters in the making--either by design or accident. Sooner or later, he seems to believe, swarms of self-replicating nanomachines are sure to run amok and devour everything on earth unless our physicists' reckless experiments with high-energy particle collisions disrupt the fabric of space-time first, setting off a catastrophe that would spread outward "at the speed of light to engulf the entire universe."

The Futurist then notes that Garreau finds the two middle possibilities "appealing," but nonetheless offers this criticism:

[It] fails to solve one problem that techno-boosters and techno-pessimists alike agree on: the chance that exponential increases in human knowledge or environmental stress may abruptly reach a "singularity," beyond which none of our accumulated knowledge or sophisticated tools will be able to control or even positively influence the new circumstances shaping our existence.

Though the Futurist refers to technological singularity, the term, as Garreau notes in the subtitle to his book, has metaphysical builds as well.


Technorati tags: singularity, artificial intelligence, ontology, philosophy of science