Thursday, December 8, 2011

Are Humans Ready to Undertake a Radical Evolution?

Are we close to a major transformation of humanity?  Are we going to change ourselves to the point that we would barely recognize ourselves?
"Forget the newspaper..."
 -Bill Joy - Former Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems

Science fiction based technology is much closer to reality than it may appear. Technology, especially human based/centered has grown exponentially since the mid 1900's. Joel Garreau describes this as "the curve". Essentially the curve is the rate of change in technology over time and how that change increases more dramatically every decade moving forward. In theory, the exponential change is so great that you can not look at the time moving forward as a 1:1 relationship. For example the last 20 years in technological advancement (1991-2011) can not be looked at as the same rate of growth for the next 20 years (2012-2032). In reality, at the rate we are growing, the next 20 years of potential or theoretical growth will probably only take about 8 years to come to fruition, and the next 50 years only 14-15 years to become reality! Science fiction is already reality!

The four interrelated technologies that will converge according to Garreau he calls GRIN (genetic, robotic, information, nano processes).  The author quotes Rodney Brooks, director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT as stating,

My thesis is that just in 20 years the boundary between fantasy and reality will be rent asunder...
Ray Kurzweil via: Brian Murray
Garreau focuses on the human advancements in technology as opposed to the "mechanical/computer" side of things. Essentially however the two run hand in hand with one another. That being said, he does focus on the technological advances that will change and ultimately reshape the human race as we know it today- leading to a creation of super humans if you will.

One of Garreau's main sources has been researchers with DARPA (defense advanced research project agency) who essentially are aiming to create the super soldier. Though periodically he points out that the researchers also look at the "big picture" and what their research will ultimately mean for humanity as a whole.

In the middle if the 20th century,the powers of these superheroes (and sci fi characters) were dreams. Today we are entering a world in which such abilities are either yesterday's news or tomorrows headlines. Joel Garreau

There are three scenarios that Garreau sees humans potentially heading towards as we evolve into this "newer human". There is the heaven scenario - the classical happy ending where we live in a pseudo paradise as god like humans. Then there is the hell scenario- the classical tragic ending where most of - if not all- of humanity essentially kills itself off as the technology overpowers us. (Think Terminator!) And finally there is the prevail scenario, where humans manage to avoid the paradise and ultimate destruction scenarios by maneuvering our way around the technological advances and continuing our existence.
Bill Joy

With the advances that DARPA is making, and Garreau writes about, it may not be beyond the realm of possibility that someone may become "practically immortal", or that a computer will think for itself, learn, and evolve... All of this may be possible with "the Curve" as mentioned earlier.

It is not inconceivable to think that humans lives will change more dramatically in the next few decades than in ALL of recorded history. Again based on the curve this may be possible. One thing is certain however, the curve exists, change is happening and we will follow one of three scenarios.

The idea that humans will all live peacefully forever and ever as in the heaven is possible if the curve continues and the technology is made available to everyone. This is the only way to avoid human natures greed and need to want and have more.  This is the view held by people such as Ray Kurzweil.  According to Garreau, Kurzweil's influence has been adopted by Washington D.C., when a 2003 report was co-issued by the Department of Commerce and the National Science Foundation titled, Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science.  The fifteen predictions made in that document form a very utopian view of the future of the world.

Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal. Albert Einstein
The idea that we will reach a point that we will ultimately destroy ourselves if the curve follows the hell scenario. Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems is a famous proponent of this scenario.  This is quite likely to happen for three reasons. Humans desire more and are seldom happy with the status quo- despite natural resistance to changes. The second is that our research and technology will come back to haunt us. We continue to research, we continue to create powerful super computers and "god like" human technology and this will ultimately destroy most of humanity in the process- as in the movie Terminator. The third is that the technology will not be made available to everyone -for any number of reasons- and a revolution takes place. None of these scenarios are particularly appealing. Garreau quotes C.S. Lewis in his bool, The Abolition of Man.
Human Nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. We henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be. The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will jhave won it? For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please.
Perhaps the Sci-film Forbidden Planet, echoed this hell scenario in the last scene of the movie.  The Krell technology is the ultimate goal of all machines connected to a living brain:

 But the movie marks a sad ending to this enlightened and advanced race.

The prevail scenario is the status quo. The curve continues and humans continue on, striving for more, creating more and turning ourselves into "enhanced humans."  To Garreau the prevailing position is the transhumanist position on how technology will evolve.

All of these seem like science fiction and seem like they can be made into movies and put in theaters but they are not just science fiction. They are not just ideas anymore. There are organizations like DARPA and the DSO (Defense Sciences Office) that are attempting to create the 24/7 super soldier- a real life Captain America. In addition, they're creating medical advances, genetically engineered super foods, advanced stem cell research etc. etc.

In all of the research there are two types to consider. There is incremental research which basically is done in steps and released to the world. If you can afford it, you can have access to it. On the other hand there is Radical Innovation, which is research that is 20-40 years ahead of the increment and used in private (in most cases). This Radical Innovation is the advances that will seem to us like Science Fiction. These are the advances that we "only see in movies" or can dream of.

Despite all of the evidence and advances there are still people that will be unconvinced that there is, or will be, a Radical Evolution taking place in humans and technology. And these people need to look at how close reality and science fiction truly are.

Some of the best scifi books and movies of all time are rooted in reality. Let's examine a few things that at one time were considered "out of this world".


-The Terminator


-Star Wars/ Star Trek

The list can go on and on...

Without writing a book on super powers lets just look at how we now have one. X-ray vision, one of supermans powers was to see through anything (except lead). Today, we have night vision goggles, infrared scanners, heat signature scanners, ground penetrating radar etc. and this is just naming a few. All of these are a form of supermans power of x-ray vision.

"...we are called to be architects of the future, not its victims." Buckminster Fuller
We need to look no further than our "smart phones" and "smart computers" which are far more advanced than most people could have ever imagined even ten years ago. How fare are we from the self-evolved computer? Look at predator drones and unmanned space missions and it is not hard to imagine the idea of a self evolving computer taking overlooked in I, Robot or The Terminator.

In all of the Star Wars/Trek movies, we can see the uses of technology that we have today. Bones and his body scanners, phasers set to stun! Even Captain Jean Luc Picard can be seen In iPad or ereader in the movie Generations.

Bill Joy

This brings me around to Garreau and his idea of super humans, the ones being researched by DARPA. With all of the examples of technological advances in the last 20-50 years is the idea of an evolved genetic superhumans that far away? How far are we from the likes of Steve Rodgers and Captain America? Or from Khan Noonam Singh (star trek) - the genetically engineered super human that lived in the 1990's (though created in 1967) and was revived in the year 2267 from a state of cryogenics.

There are so many examples of technology and super human technology that we have now and take for granted that, as Garreau points out, that just a couple decades ago would have been nothing but an idea steeped in science fiction. The key to selling the idea to the average person that science fiction is reality is still very difficult. The fact is that if you can imagine it, chances are that it is already in production or in the planning stages of production. Nothing is, or ever will be off limits.

Let's end with this thought directly from Garreau, "In the middle if the 20th century,the powers of these superheroes (and sci fi characters) were dreams. Today we are entering a world in which such abilities are either yesterday's news or tomorrows headlines."

Overall the book is well documented and resourced.  Garreau has tried to take into account all points of view.  He provides a lot of background in the fields of history, literature and philosophy.  If there is any point at which his discussion falls short, it is in his definition and discussion of the transhumanist position.  He does not, for example, discuss the differences among transhumanists and singularitarians.  There are three major schools or views on what the singularity is.  There is a great discussion of this subject by Eliezer Yudkowsky.  The three schools are:

  1. Accelerating Change  - Our intuitions about change are linear; we expect roughly as much change as has occurred in the past over our own lifetimes. But technological change feeds on itself, and therefore accelerates. Change today is faster than it was 500 years ago, which in turn is faster than it was 5000 years ago. Our recent past is not a reliable guide to how much change we should expect in the future. This position is held by Ray Kurzweil, Alvin Toffler and John Smart.
  2. Event Horizon - For the last hundred thousand years, humans have been the smartest intelligences on the planet. All our social and technological progress was produced by human brains. Shortly, technology will advance to the point of improving on human intelligence (brain-computer interfaces, Artificial Intelligence). This will create a future that is weirder by far than most science fiction, a difference-in-kind that goes beyond amazing shiny gadgets.  This position is defended by Vernor Vinge.
  3. Intelligence Explosion - Intelligence has always been the source of technology. If technology can significantly improve on human intelligence – create minds smarter than the smartest existing humans – then this closes the loop and creates a positive feedback cycle. What would humans with brain-computer interfaces do with their augmented intelligence? One good bet is that they’d design the next generation of brain-computer interfaces. Intelligence enhancement is a classic tipping point; the smarter you get, the more intelligence you can apply to making yourself even smarter.  This position is advocated by J. Good and Eliezer Yudkowsky.
We heartily recommend this book as an excellent overview of the way that technology will affect us as a race.

Richard Burzynski


Joel Garreau said...

Good piece.  If you're interested in the humanistic "Prevail" scenario, where we manage to remain in control of the future of our human nature despite exponential technological change, you might want to check out The Prevail Project web site -- and join "those coming together in novel, audacious ways to imagine -- and then create -- a human future we can thrive in":

Richburzynski said...

Thank you Mr. Garreau. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and am honored that you've read and commented on the review.
Richard Burzynski