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Future Tense: Radical Evolution

Future Tense, one of the revolving features on this page, presents stories from the intersection of computational science and technological speculation, their boundaries limited only by our ability to imagine what will and could be.
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Lee De Forest

Technologies powerful enough to modify our minds, memories, metabolisms, personalities, and progeny are powerful enough to transform our own evolution.

In 1913, the U.S. Government prosecuted Lee De Forest for telling investors that his company, RCA, would soon be able to transmit the human voice across the Atlantic. This claim was so preposterous, prosecutors asserted, that he was obviously swindling potential investors. He was ultimately released, but not before being lectured by the judge to stop making any more fraudulent claims.

With this legal reasoning in mind, consider the scenarios I describe here. They are not predictions but meant to be credible portrayals of possible near-term futures, factually grounded in computer-enabled technologies, all unquestionably under development today.

Flash forward 15 years. Look at the girl who is today your second-grade daughter. Imagine she is just home for the holidays. You were so proud of her when she not only put herself through Ohio State but graduated summa cum laude. Now she has taken on her most formidable challenge yet: competing with her generation’s elite in her fancy new law school. You want to hear all about it. But the difference between this touching tableau and those of the past is that in it, technologies designed to modify our minds, memories, metabolisms, personalities, progeny—indeed, what it means to be human—are now pouring onto the market. She is competing against all those with the will and wherewithal to adopt them.

"What are your classmates like, honey?," you say.

"They’re all really, really smart," she says. How, she wonders, does she explain what the enhanced kids are like? She knows her parents have read about what’s going on. But actually dealing with some of her new classmates is decidedly strange. These enhanced students have amazing thinking abilities. They’re not only faster and more creative than anybody she’s ever met but faster and more creative than anybody she’s ever imagined. They have photographic memories and total recall. They devour books in minutes. They’re also beautiful, physically.

They talk casually about living a long time, perhaps forever, always discussing their "next lives." One mentions how, after he makes his pile as a lawyer, he plans to be a glassblower, after which he wants to be a nanosurgeon.

What really matters is not how many transistors we connect but how many ornery, cussed, imaginative, unpredictable humans we connect.

Another fell while jogging, opening up a nasty gash on her knee. But instead of rushing to a hospital, she just stared at the wound, focusing her mind on it, triggering a metabolic cascade that caused the bleeding simply to stop. This same friend had been vaccinated against acute pain so she didn’t feel it for long anyway.

They always seem to be connected to one another, sharing their thoughts no matter how far apart, with no apparent gear. They call it "silent messaging." It seems almost like telepathy. They have this odd habit of cocking their heads in a certain way whenever they want to access information, as if waiting for a wireless delivery to arrive; inevitably, it does. They don’t sleep for a week or more at a time and joke about getting rid of the beds in their cramped dorm rooms.

They are unfailingly polite when your daughter can’t keep up with their conversations, as if she were deficient in some way. They can’t help but condescend, however, when she protests that embedded technology is not natural for humans.

They’ve nicknamed her "Natural," which is what they call all those who could be like them but choose not to be, referring to themselves as "Enhanced." Those with neither the education nor the money to consider keeping up with the exploding augmentation technologies are dismissed as "The Rest"; the poor dears, they seem to just keep falling farther and farther behind.

Everyone in your daughter’s law school takes it as a matter of course that the law they are studying is changing to match the new enhancements. The law will be upgraded, the Enhanceds believe, just as they get new physical and mental upgrades every time they go home. In fact, the paper your daughter is working on over the holidays concerns whether a Natural can truly enter into an informed relationship with an Enhanced, even for something as innocuous as a date.

Even in the face of unprecedented threats, ‘Prevail’ reflects faith that the ragged human convoy of divergent perceptions, piqued honor, posturing, insecurity, and humor will wend its way to glory.

We are at a turning point in human history. Today, for the first time in hundreds of thousands of years, our technologies are not only aimed outward at modifying our environment. Rather, the GRIN technologies—the genetic, robotic, information, and nano processes, all based on computing technologies evolving at the pace of Moore’s Law if not faster—increasingly aim inward at changing who we are and what we can be. Not in some distant future but right now, on our watch.

How might such radical evolution influence what it means to be human? Talk to those deploying the GRIN technologies and you hear three scenarios—Heaven, Hell, and Prevail.

In "Heaven," we conquer pain, suffering, ignorance, stupidity—even death—in a perfection of the human condition. In it, traditional definitions of humanity are increasingly remote. There are few divisions like those in your daughter’s law school scenario because it’s so difficult to remember why anyone would want to cling to Version 1.0 humanity. Being a knowledge-based creature is far preferable to being what Ray Kurzweil calls "mostly original substrate humans."

In "Hell," pessimists see a mirror-image curve in which the power of the GRIN technologies inevitably gets into the hands of madmen or fools, leading to disaster for all. If conflict between different species of humans doesn’t get us, then the genetically engineered microbes carefully designed to be 100% fatal or the self-replicating energy-devouring nanobots will. The outcomes are the same—annihilation of the human race within 20 years. Entirely too imaginable.

Both Heaven and Hell are technodeterministic, assuming that our gear shapes history. In neither is your daughter able to do much to shape her generation’s future. The critical driver is the smooth curve of Moore’s Law, measuring progress by the number of transistors we get to talk to one another.

As a humanist, however, I root for "Prevail," which is not some middle ground between Heaven and Hell. Way off in its own territory, it assumes what really matters is not how many transistors we connect but how many ornery, cussed, imaginative, unpredictable humans we connect. Its measure is not individuals bragging about their latest cognitive implants, leaving your daughter and others like her frightened and lonely, but something far larger, measured in group transformation.

How do we know which scenario we are entering? Heaven and Hell both have the virtue of being obvious. We see bellwethers in the headlines every day. But suppose you see second-order network effects—group effects. Could they be early warnings of Prevail? Suppose you’ve seen cellphones going from curiosity to commonplace in 30 years. There are now more than one of them for every two humans on earth—the fastest uptake of any technology in history, including the polio vaccine. Suppose as a result you see some of the greatest economic and social transformations in some of the most unexpected places, from Bangladesh to Nigeria. I am, of course, describing the present.

If the harbingers of Prevail are the appearance of many collaborative, bottom-up, worldwide human solutions, what do they say about eBay? Not just the world’s biggest flea market but a network of millions of people producing highly complex solutions without leaders. Facebook causes us to reconsider the meaning of such a basic human institution as "friend." YouTube recently helped shape the most interesting election in a lifetime. And what about Twitter?

Prevail embraces uncertainty. Even in the face of unprecedented threats, it reflects faith that the ragged human convoy of divergent perceptions, piqued honor, posturing, insecurity, and humor will wend its way to glory. The embedded assumption is that even if a smooth curve of exponential change describes the future of technology, it will not map onto the messy world of human fortunes.

Prevail is driven by faith in human cussedness, based on a hunch that you can count on humans to throw The Curve of exponential change a curve of their own. It is also a belief that transcendence resulting from humans taking control of their own evolution is unlikely to be part of any simple scheme.

The significance of all this can hardly be understated. Despite the billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars, we cannot detect any other life in the universe. Why not? Perhaps every intelligent species eventually takes control of its own evolution. Maybe such radical evolution is the final exam. Maybe everyone else has already flunked.

Let’s not flunk, too.

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