[Paleopsych] Book World: (Garreau) Intelligent Design?

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Intelligent Design?

    Reviewed by Joshua Foer
    Sunday, June 12, 2005; BW05

    The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- and What
    It Means to Be Human
    By Joel Garreau. Doubleday. 384 pp. $26

    Far-fetched as it may sound, the first person who will live to be
    1,000 may already walk among us. The first computer that will think
    like a person may be built before today's kindergarteners graduate
    from college. By the middle of this century, we may be as blasé about
    genetically engineered humans as we are today about pierced ears.
    These sorts of predictions have a habit of sounding silly by the time
    they're supposed to come true, but there's a certain logic to them.
    Joel Garreau calls that logic "The Curve."

    The Curve is the untamable force of exponential growth that propels
    technological progress. It's the compound interest on human ingenuity.
    The fact that computing power has doubled every 18 months, right on
    schedule, for the last four decades is a manifestation of The Curve.
    So is the rapid expansion of the Internet and the recent boom in
    genetic technologies. According to the inexorable logic of The Curve,
    if you want to get a sense of how radically our world will be
    transformed over the next century, the best guide will be looking back
    at how much things have changed, not over the past century, but over
    the past millennium.

    Garreau, a reporter and editor at The Washington Post, has sought out
    the scientists who are driving The Curve's breakneck acceleration and
    the major thinkers who are contemplating its implications. His breezy,
    conversational book, full of mini-profiles and chatty asides, is a
    guide to the big ideas about the future of our species that are
    circulating at the beginning of the 21st century.

    As he tramps around the country meeting futurists and technophiles,
    Garreau becomes acquainted with researchers at the Defense Advanced
    Research Projects Agency (DARPA) who are trying to abolish sleep and
    invent cyborg soldiers. He meets "transhumanists" for whom genetic
    enhancement promises a kind of messianic salvation. He also meets
    naysayers who fear that all this so-called progress is far more likely
    to lead to auto-annihilation than to techno-bliss. Garreau lays out
    three alternative futures for our species: a happy ending that he
    calls the Heaven Scenario, a tragic ending he calls Hell and a middle
    scenario he calls Prevail, in which humans somehow manage to muddle
    through the ethical and technological jungle ahead without creating
    paradise on Earth or blowing ourselves up.

    In the Heaven scenario, genetic engineering, robotics and
    nanotechnology make us happier, smarter, stronger and better-looking.
    Man and machine gradually meld as we transcend the physical
    limitations of our bodies and become immortal. Humans evolve into a
    new species of post-humans as different from us today as we are from
    chimps. We become like gods.

    According to Vernor Vinge, one of several eccentric scientists whom
    Garreau interviews, The Curve will continue to get steeper and steeper
    until it eventually goes completely vertical in a rapturous moment he
    has dubbed "The Singularity." At some point this century, but probably
    no later than 2030, Vinge believes that humans will build the last
    machine we'll ever need -- a device so intelligent it will be able to
    reproduce rapidly and create new machines far smarter than humans
    could ever imagine. Practically overnight, our social order will
    rupture, and our world will be transformed. There's no guarantee that
    will be particularly pleasant.

    Many of the thinkers Garreau interviews are less than sanguine about
    humanity's prospects. Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, warns
    that technology is empowering individuals to do evil on a scale never
    before imagined. A single rogue scientist will soon be able to
    engineer a plague capable of wiping out humankind. Even
    well-intentioned scientists could accidentally do something
    catastrophic, such as releasing a swarm of self-replicating nanobots
    that would suck the planet dry of energy -- turning the world into the
    "gray goo" of Michael's Crichton's fanciful novel Prey . In such a
    one-strike-and-you're-out world, it's hard to imagine we'd last very

    Francis Fukuyama and Bill McKibben's Hell Scenarios are less
    apocalyptic. They fear that the coming technologies will upend
    societies and sap life of its meaning, gradually leading us into the
    dehumanized hell of a Brave New World. They'd like to manage The Curve
    through government regulation or by taking the Amish approach of
    forswearing objectionable technologies.

    But just as inescapable as The Curve's upward trajectory may be
    humankind's uncanny knack for rolling with the punches. Garreau's
    Prevail scenario is "based on a hunch that you can count on humans to
    throw The Curve a curve." Even if technology seems to be a force out
    of control, we'll always find some way to direct it toward our desired
    ends, Garreau suspects. Jaron Lanier, the inventor of virtual reality,
    envisions a version of the Prevail scenario in which humans use
    technology to build tighter and tighter interpersonal relations. Our
    bodies become less important as our social bonds strengthen. The
    Internet, according to Lanier, is an early step down this path to
    global interconnectedness.

    If these scenarios sound outlandish, that is only because it's hard to
    look so far into the future without getting whiplash. But Garreau
    argues that the stakes in thinking all this through are enormous. We
    "face the biggest change in tens of thousands of years in what it
    means to be human," he writes. It's an exhilarating adventure our
    species has embarked upon. It might be a little less terrifying if we
    knew where we were headed. ·

    Joshua Foer is a science writer living in Washington, D.C.

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