Wednesday, February 2, 2011

CAN WE STILL SAVE OURSELVES?: Technology's race to prevent a New Dark Age

     Dr. Gaia Demitrius, a neuropathologist and geriatric specialist who also happens to have a Ph.D. in physics, knows more about dementia than anyone else in the world. In her research, she is pursuing cures and preventive measures for dementia that involve genetic engineering and someday, perhaps, nanotechnology. She believes that, with the help of powerful computer algorithms, she and her team will soon find the fundamental genetic causes of dementia, and that prevention and cure will not be far behind.
      Dr. Demitrius hopes this happens very soon. Both her mother and her father developed dementia in their sixties. Dr. Demitrius is 52. She is the world’s best hope for a cure. For her, the race is on: Will she find a cure before dementia plunges the doctor herself into darkness?

     Okay, actually, I invented Dr. Demitrius. Sorry if you got all excited. As the more observant among you will have noticed, her name is rather ham-handedly symbolic: “Gaia” as in “Earth” and “Demitrius” as in “lover of the earth.” I created Dr. Demitrius as a symbol of what’s happening on our planet today.
     Dr. Demitrius’s situation—will she cure the disease before she gets it?—is pretty closely analogous to the plight of Planet Earth.
     I’ve been reading Bill McKibben’s alarming book Eaarth recently. His premise is this: We’ve let global warming get so far out of hand that it’s too late to stop it or reverse it, even if we built a million windmills and made everybody drive an electric car tomorrow. The planet is now forever changed (hence its new name: Eaarth), and it’s now up to us to adapt to the change. His book offers a prescription for how we must adapt. Basically: think smaller.
Bill McKibben, environmentalist

     The world McKibben foresees will have melting glaciers, thawing Siberian permafrost, bigger hurricanes, more flooding, shrinking beaches, retreating rain forests, expanding deserts, more terrifying diseases, larger forest fires, and more acidic oceans, where fish and coral will die en masse. Oil will run out. Farms will be less productive. People will drown, starve, and thirst to death. There will be wars over water and grain. Actually, this is not the world he foresees. It’s the world he sees already. Not a pretty picture.
      McKibben means to be an alarmist, and his tone is a bit off-puttingly condescending. But his book is full of facts and footnotes and is pretty persuasive.
Melting permafrost will release methane, making global warming worse
      In McKibben’s view, Dr. Demitrius already has dementia, and it’s too late to stop it. Now she needs to figure out how to live with it. There will be no cure.
      But there is, of course, another view:  the view of the technophiles. These are folks who believe that whatever problems humanity faces will be solved by science and technology, and that we are being childish to so preoccupy ourselves with as trivial a concern as global warming. You’ll find among this group people like the “extropians” and “transhumanists”—interesting thinkers who believe, among other things, that humankind will “transcend” its natural limitations through technologies like genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence. They are not only unafraid of science and technology; they relish it. They foresee children with genetically enhanced IQ’s and genetic embellishments that allow them, for example, to fly with their own wings. They foresee computers with spectacular intelligence and true consciousness, which are millions of times smarter than humans and can create computers a hundred times smarter than themselves, within months. They foresee nanobots that patrol our bloodstreams, killing cancer cells, and nanomachines that turn dirt into sweet potatoes, instantly. They foresee an end to death.
Winged humans? Fine with the transhumanists.
     The technophiles think the Terminator movies have it all wrong. Science and technology, they say, will not threaten us, it will save us. Indeed, it will raise us to astonishing realms of joy and enlightenment. It will take us beyond the stars. All this might even happen in the next thirty years.
     The technophiles think Dr. Demitrius, with the help of computers and genetic engineering and nanotechnology, will not only cure dementia before she gets it but soon find herself and all humankind the immortal envy of the universe.
     I find the technophiles also persuasive.
     Interestingly, the last book of McKibben’s that I read was called Enough. In it he lays out his views of genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence. You can guess his position: he doesn’t trust them. They’re too promising, he says. In fact, he really believes they will give us everything, including immortality, and so he wants us to put an end to all research in genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence. He thinks they’ve gone far enough (hence, his book’s title). These technologies are, he says, a threat to the very idea of what it means to be human and to have meaning as a human being. He doesn’t like the idea of anyone living forever.
     The extropians say, Nonsense. They say if our grandchildren are half-machine, a million times smarter than us, can breathe under water, and never die—well, great!

Half human, half machine: the look of our grandchildren?
     I find this discourse fascinating, and I will state my position on these matters now: I believe we are in the position of Dr. Demitrius. If we don’t cure the disease before we get it, we will plunge into darkness and it will be too late. But it’s just as likely we will use technology to save ourselves before that happens.
     In other words, if science and technology don’t save us soon, one hundred years from now we may find ourselves well into a New Dark Age of war, famine, disease, and ignorance, hiding behind walls in the futuristic version of feudal villages. This is what McKibben warns us about. On the other hand, perhaps the technophiles are right, and we are about to enter a world of scientific advancement so extraordinary that it deserves the name of “singularity”: a point in time beyond which the world will be so different, so technologically advanced, and advancing so exponentially faster, that even the best science-fiction writers can’t imagine it.

Ray Kurzweil, futurist and AI expert
Max More, Extropian

   Some technophiles like Ray Kurzweil and Max More seem to point to the year 2030 as a time when machines might achieve superhuman intelligence, and maybe even consciousness, and when genetic engineering will be able to utterly transform what a human being is, and nanotechnology will enable us to manipulate the very makings of matter to create whatever we want, now. 

    I’m going to try to make it to 2030. I’ll be 84 years old then. I hope that, before that time, the darkness will not have fallen upon me. Upon all of us.



  1. I've never been a big fan of believing that humans solve anything, especially the persistent little problem of death. And although we've managed to postpone death by a few decades in some parts of the world, we've also had to deal with changing life expectancies that always seem to make any lifespan seem too short. We are good, however, at hoping and fantasizing about solutions that, conveniently, would perfectly work out for us if they came about (see each generation's expectation of the coming of the Messiah). Just as the winners always write the histories, the winners also generate the fantasies, that were they to come true, would just happen to keep them winners. These fantasies also insulate them from acceptance of the consequences of their behavior. My understanding of history is that there have always been small enclaves of humans who, because of their relative power, live in luxury as the rest of the humans suffer horribly. Rationalizations for this state of affairs generally serve the lucky ones well enough to prevent significant changes of behavior. The lucky enclave moves around the planet, now in Asia, now in Spain, now in the Netherlands, now in Rome, now in England, now in the US, then, perhaps again, in Asia. This will all, I expect, continue to be true, as temperatures rise.

  2. I am a technologist and have been all my life. Worked in biotechnology and artificial intelligence. Near as I can tell all the data points to a very bleak future (and not a too-distant one).

    Oil is running out. It is that simple. It may be 50 years or 100. Even if it is 200 years that isn't a very long run. Then it is more than energy we lose. It is food (food costs energy to produce and distribute), chemicals (almost everything is derived from petroleum), medicinals, etc. Show me something and odds are I'll show you a petroleum derivative. Have we figured out what happens when petroleum disappears? Not even close.

    Climate change. Ask India and China if they are interested in a growing economy or reducing greenhouse gas. No, you really can't have both just yet. Which wins? Right.

    Computer technology to the rescue? Singularity? I've been in the field for 30 years and it isn't likely to happen. Ever, let alone fast enough.

    Nanotechnology? The distance between what we can do with nanotechnology now and performing useful work with self assembling "mobs" of nanoparticles to cure disease is simply galactic. And do we really need that approach to address our crisis in medicine and healthcare? Can you imagine how expensive these kinds of therapies will be to deliver? And to what end?

    Almost every technologist suffers from tragic hubris. I think the gods are gonna get pissed again.

  3. Larry: One of McKibben's problems with the Big Three technologies (nano, genetics, AI) is that they will serve the "lucky ones" and not the masses. (Those who can afford to genetically engineer their kids to be brilliant will be the only ones who get to do so.)
    Tom: Have you read Kurzweil on the "knee of the curve" in the technologies. Did you ever meet Kurzweil (former head of MIT AI lab)? How about Vernor Vinge?
    Wish I could live 100 years. We have no idea what the world will be like then, any more than our grandparents knew in 1911 what today's world is like. Dystopia? Maybe. Maybe not.