[Paleopsych] NYT: Tierney: Homo Sapiens 2.0

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Fri Sep 30 20:53:22 UTC 2005

Homo Sapiens 2.0
New York Times opinion column by John Tierney, 5.9.27

A newspaper's most important function is to comfort troubled readers with 
horror stories from far away. Every day we strive to remind you: Hey, things 
could always be worse.

This solace isn't easy to offer after two hurricanes. But consider the gray goo 

Imagine that the Gulf Coast was inundated not with water but with a swarm of 
nanobots. These would be microscopic machines designed to break down substances 
like cancer cells in a body or pests in a farm field.

But what if scientists accidentally created some superorganism that outcompeted 
all other life and wiped out everything on the Gulf Coast -- then spread like 
pollen around the world. What if they engineered nanobots that kept replicating 
and evolving until they broke down the substance of every living thing, leaving 
the planet covered in gray goo?

This is part of what Joel Garreau calls the Hell scenario in ''Radical 
Evolution,'' his book analyzing the new forms of life -- including 
''transhumans'' and ''posthumans'' -- coming to your neighborhood soon. A man 
has already used his thoughts to send e-mail and control a robotic arm. And in 
three years, there could be memory-enhanced humans who take pills to banish 
senior moments and raise their SAT scores by 200 points.

Then, within a decade or two, there may come an ''inflection point in history'' 
comparable to the rise of humans from apes. People will use drugs, genetic 
tinkering and computer implants to make themselves and their children smarter 
than anyone today -- and this new breed will go on creating improved models of 
themselves at a breakneck pace.

Unless, of course, they're all dead. The prophets of the Hell scenario warn of 
engineered viruses that are genocidal. Even if accidents or terrorism don't 
wipe out everyone, there's still the danger that the new species will eliminate 
the old-fashioned humans. Who needs those sickly slow-witted creatures anymore?

My first impulse was to dismiss these apocalyptic visions along with all the 
previous ones. The population bomb, nuclear meltdowns, the energy crisis, 
cancer epidemics, global warming -- for decades I've been debunking prophecies 
of doom as either imaginary or wildly exaggerated. I know many scientists 
consider the gray-goo doomsday to be impossible. If nothing else, the nanobots 
would probably suffer a Windows crash long before eating the planet.

Still, the Hell scenario gives me pause because its promoters aren't just the 
usual technophobes. Bill Joy, the former Sun Microsystems scientist who's been 
called the Edison of the Internet, is one of the prophets of doom calling for 
restraints on researchers. But no one has any practical suggestions for how to 
stop this work. Banning human cloning in America won't stop it from occurring 
somewhere else, like South Korea, because the potential benefits of these new 
technologies are irresistible.

Some perfectly respectable scientists believe in what Garreau calls the Heaven 
scenario: a world without pain, privation, disease or death. Everyone will have 
instant access to any information; people will trade thoughts with one another. 
They'll be so networked that they may be considered one giant organism.

To skeptics, this Heaven scenario is also known as ''the Rapture of the 
nerds.'' The more likely outcome is a scenario that Garreau calls Prevail. The 
new technologies will cause problems, but humans will muddle through, work 
together to find solutions and emerge better off, just as they always have.

Garreau argues that the new breed of interconnected people will be collectively 
wiser than ever before -- he actually makes a persuasive case that cellphones 
and e-mail are a force for social good. (If you doubt this, read ''Radical 
Evolution'' and join the discussion of it at my book club at 

Stepping up the evolutionary ladder sounds so appealing that I'm glad to risk 
even the gray goo problem, but it wouldn't hurt to have a fallback plan. The 
best insurance I can imagine against a global plague would be to keep some 
humans cloistered from the global network, like the Irish monasteries that kept 
learning alive during the Dark Ages, or the grapevines in California that were 
taken back to France after its vines were wiped out.

We might encourage some of the prophets of doom to practice their philosophy by 
withdrawing to a remote island and giving up their Internet connections, but 
the ideal refuge would be Mars. If officials hope to get money for NASA's new 
program of manned exploration, I suggest they go to Capitol Hill with a 
two-word sales pitch: gray goo.

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