[Paleopsych] Book World: (Garreau) Intelligent Design?
checker at panix.com
Tue Jun 14 01:11:41 UTC 2005
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
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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