The Human-Techno Future: How Weird, How Soon?

Author Joel Garreau discusses our STEM-enhanced near future


In his new book, Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies—And What It Means to Be Human, (Random House), author Joel Garreau describes research so cutting edge it seems mind-boggling. A telekinetic monkey at Duke University in North Carolina uses its mind to move a robotic arm 600 miles away in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At a Pentagon research-and-development facility in Virginia, program managers aim to create the ultimate warriors—soldiers that can fight without sleeping, stop bleeding at will, and regrow lost hands and limbs.

Garreau notes that regular doublings in computing power are driving unprecedented advances in genetics, robotics, information systems, and nanotechnology. These “GRIN” technologies are following a curve of exponential growth that could redefine life as we know it within 10-20 years.

National Geographic News recently sat down with Garreau, a Washington Post editor and reporter, to discuss his new book, technology, and three scenarios of our future.

Why did you write the book?

The point of Radical Evolution is to try to let the ordinary reader in on a conversation that right now is really only occurring at the top level of scientists and engineers around the country. I mean, this is what they’re talking about that I don’t think most people know.

I really don’t care that much about technology, per se. I’m really interested in human beings, who we are, how we got that way, where we’re headed, and what makes us tick. So the gee-whiz technology is not what I’m about at all. It’s just a place to stand to look at what it means about the future of being human.

So what might that future entail? You talk, for example, about “enhanced” humans.

Already you see what Viagra does, not to mention Botox, and serotonin reuptake inhibitors in personality [for depression]. Well that is just the primitive form. This is increasing on an exponential curve. You’re talking about being given enhancements that will allow you to think faster, to have better memory, to be physically ripped and beautiful without having to put in a lot of effort.

The big question is, Is there going to be an arms race among people who will have to compete with enhanced people like that? Among the “enhanced” and the “naturals” [who think enhancements are creepy] and a third group—people who, for reasons of geography or money, don’t have access to these enhancement technologies, and they envy and despise those who do.

If you have these three different kinds of humans walking around in the next 10 or 15 years, is this going to be a recipe for conflict? It’s been a long time since we’ve seen more than one kind of human walking the Earth at the same time. Twenty-five or fifty thousand years, depending on whether you’re going back to the Cro-Magnon or the Neanderthals. And when more than one kind of critter starts competing over the same ecological niche, it usually ends up badly for one of them.

You enlist three scenarios—heaven, hell, and prevail—to describe potential outcomes of our technological future. What’s the heaven scenario?

The foremost proponent of the heaven scenario is a guy named Ray Kurzweil, a famed inventor—the classic geek hero. He looks at this curve of exponential change and what’s going on in the GRIN technologies, and he thinks this is all terrific. He sees a curve going straight up to heaven, basically. He sees us conquering pain, suffering, death, stupidity, ignorance, ugliness, and basically doing this in our lifetime.

That’s one of the critical aspects of Radical Evolution: We’re talking about the next 10 or 20 years. We’re not talking about some far side of the moon. This is going to happen on our watch.

In the heaven scenario that Ray and others portray, what happens is that the curve goes straight up, and there’re all sorts of wonderful technological changes that solve all sorts of problems that have plagued mankind forever. This produces a change in what it means to be human that is basically good. As Ray describes it, it’s essentially indistinguishable from the Christian version of heaven.

Ray, for example, doesn’t think he’s going to die. He takes 250 pills a day. And his view of it is that if you can stay healthy for the next 20 years, the curve of technological change will be advancing so rapidly that an awful lot of what ails [us we] will essentially be able to conquer.

What’s the hell scenario?

The hell scenario is eerily the mirror image of the heaven scenario. The poster boy for the hell scenario is Bill Joy, who invented [much] of what makes the Internet work—another big-deal technologist, heavy dude.

He’s looking at the same information about this curve of technological change, and he’s saying, Wait a minute. This could go just the opposite way. He says with the GRIN technologies, what you’re doing is offering incredible powers to ordinary individuals. Some of them are bound to be nuts, you know. What’s going to happen as a result?

One of the things that drives him nuts, for example, is the Australian mouse pox incident. [Researchers] were looking for a form of mouse contraceptive, and they were doing genetic tinkering with the mousepox virus. It doesn’t do anything to humans, but it’s a close relative to small pox, which does do bad things to humans. They made one small change in the genetic structure in this mousepox virus, and the resulting organism was 100 percent fatal to the mice, no survivors. They all died. Researchers had never seen anything like this before. That just doesn’t happen.

It was amazing how bad this change was. Up until then, the conventional wisdom was that if you mess around with a virus genetically, it will always make it weaker. Not in this case. They made it astonishingly bad. And then they published the results on the Internet, where anybody who’d wanted to could look it up and see what they’d done and how they’d done it.

And this just drives Bill Joy nuts. He says, Well, if you handed a million people their own private atomic bomb, do you suppose one of them would be crazy enough to use it?

He’s just tremendously worried that we stand a good chance of extincting the human species in 25 years. And that’s the optimistic version. In the optimistic version of the hell scenario, you only extinct the human race. In the pessimistic version, you extinct the entire biosphere. Every living thing on Earth goes.

OK, so how about the third scenario, prevail. What’s that?

Prevail is not some middle ground between heaven and hell. It’s way over in an entirely different territory. What heaven and hell have in common is that the people who embrace these scenarios basically are technological determinists. They think that what it means to be human is shaped entirely by our technologies and that there’s not a whole lot that we can do about it.

And that’s where prevail differs—human history doesn’t have to be shaped entirely by technology. It’s basically a bet on human cussedness, the belief that history shows that humans can turn any apparent eventuality on its head, if we work at it hard enough. Classic example of a prevail story in history was the British nation of shopkeepers having victory over the Third Reich during World War II. I mean that was “not supposed to happen,” and yet it did.

Now obviously, I’m pulling for this one.

In heaven and hell, the measure of advance is how many transistors you have connecting to each other. In prevail, the critical measure is how many connections you have between humans, not between transistors. And there’s some reason for optimism that the prevail scenario might, in fact, work and that connections between humans are the right measure of progress.

For example, during 9/11 the fourth plane never made it to its target. Why? Because the Air Force were such hot shots? No. Because the White House was incredibly prescient? No. What happened on that fourth plane was that ordinary humans, empowered by [mobile phones], empowered by their technologies, in 90 minutes flat figured out what was ailing their society, diagnosed it, and, at an incredible cost to them, cured it. That was bottom-up human cussedness, empowered by technology.

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