Saturday, July 29, 2006

Humanity 2.0

Imagine a world where people never sleep. Where anyone can use computers with their mind alone. Where every superhuman power from the 1950s comic books are as commonplace as iPods. During a Monday talk at the IHS seminar I just returned from, journalist Joel Garreau explained this is a world looming on the horizon and it's closer than we think.

For dynamists like myself, this was an exhilarating speech. Think of the untold wonder that will become common place in just a decade or two. How the world will change, how people will adapt, what new ideas will explode from such radical change is the process that defines us as humans and I anxiously await the successes and unavoidable failures.

Yet buried in Garreau speech was a lurking sentiment I found uncomfortable. He said his main motivation for telling people about the upcoming breakthroughs is so "they" don't determine how society evolves. "Who's 'they?'" I asked. "Technologists," he replied. Elaborating, he said technologists are those who invent technology with no concern for the advances larger implications. It reminds of me of what Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park: "[y]our scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."

The perception that because scientists develop technology they are in charge or should consider unintended consequences of such advancements assumes they are either superhuman or ought to be. When a new technology is released unto the world, the populace determines its use and its value. If people think we are moving too fast, market forces adjust for that. (Internet companies responded with better security measures to answer consumer concerns of identity theft while buying thing online.)

To be concerned that scientists will mold society into something most don't want can only occur under tyranny, not capitalism.

Author's Note: A friend told me that his book, Radical Evolution, does not actually paint scientists in such a suspicious matter. However, I still find it necessary to emphasize that if he does feel this way, he is wrong to.


ryan said...


I think such possible changes raise some important questions. Most importantly, if I put** (or upload []) my brain into a robot body, and there's ever a war, humans versus robots, which side am I on? Because I really don't want to live on a reservation.

And just so we're clear: if I don't get to break the 7-mm wall, then you don't get to be a robot cat. Or at least you have to live in a zoo. You hear that? A zoo!

Anonymous said...

I think Garreau has been watching too many MST3Ks of mad scientist movies. Yes, scientists develop the technology, but the decision to use them lies elsewhere. Let's pretend that a scientist does make a breakthrough of large mangitude. Let's say it's a practical jetpack. Now there are larger, obvious and not so obvious, negitive implications of having one. But who makes the decision to mass produce them so these problems happen? Who makes the decision to strap the jetpack on and fly about? The scientist doesn't, so why does Garreau put the blame on him?

Here's a historic example. Einstein et al invented the atomic bomb. They did not make the decision to drop two of them on Japan. How responsible are they?

Garreau should think back to other scientific milestones like the printing press or fire before blaming "technologists". When fire was discovered I highly doubt Ugga the Caveman considered that fire could be used to burn down buildings.

Most scientists do consider the societial implications of their research. A good thrid of the Human Genome Project was allocated to doing exactly that. It was the first major scientific project in history to put so much thought into its consequences.


SmoothB said...

As I recall, Einstein's letter to FDR in re the implications of that E=MC^2 business was primarily to the effect that you could probably make a nice bomb capable of blowing up a Nazi port.

Oppenheimer did seem to hold himself responsible. A nice anecdote (probably apocryphal but far too good to check, so don't tell me) has Oppenheimer going to Truman and talking about what a shame it was that they nuked Hiroshima & Nagasaki. He goes on and on, Truman smiling the whole time. When he leaves, Truman tells an aide something to the effect of "I don't ever want to see that son of a b***h in here again. He may have built the d**n thing, but I sure as hell dropped it."

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