“Man is something to be surpassed.”
-Friedrich Willhelm Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra
Every once in a while a revolution occurs that totally changes everything. I’m not talking about petty makeovers, like the introduction of air travel, or mere paradigm shifts in human thought, like the Enlightenment, or even civilization-transfiguring events like the Industrial Revolution. No, there have only been two first-class revolutions so far. The third one seems likely to roll over us during this century.
The first revolution happened around three billion years ago with the appearance of living organisms. This was a very, very dramatic break with the past: up until then, Earth was just a ball of rock covered with slush, like any other planet, and totally dreary and monotonous (like 99.9999999999% of the cosmos still is). Then living organisms appeared, even the simplest microscopic germ a fabulous chemical machine more complex than a galaxy of stars and dead planets, and they totally transformed the surface of their world, clothing it in oxygen and soil and an astounding panoply of living things. This was something utterly new.
A second revolution came about some three billion years later when one strain of these remarkable life forms evolved intelligence and began to apply it to the manipulation of its environment. In the blink of an eye (geologically speaking), everything was transformed again. By actually understanding nature – a monumental achievement for even the most complex biochemical machine – homo sapiens gained power over it and created something entirely new. Things happened very fast now; new and fantastic things appeared at an accelerating rate – controlled fires, cities and roads, purified metals, machines, electrical devices, exotic chemicals, atom bombs, computers, genetically modified organisms. The surface environment, which had been first a barren wasteland and then a carpet of life, became in large part Man’s creation – buildings, machines, asphalt, carefully landscaped parks and fields planted with specially bred crops. Everything was different again.
A third revolution is now approaching, promising to uproot everything we know, redefine existence and create a whole new kind of world. It will probably happen very quickly, relative to the great revolutions of the past, although it might wind up taking several of the brief lifespans of our species. We cannot predict with any confidence what it will bring, anymore than a Neanderthal could predict the invention of the steam engine; it is beyond us. But we have begun the process, and set the forces in motion; we can see something of how it will it come about and what some of the intermediate results, at least, might be.
The three major elements of this revolution are information processing, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology. The first is already well underway, and the foundations have been laid for the second. The potential of nanotech remains speculative, but has been well established on a theoretical basis – the greatest question is how long it will take to reach fruition.
The fantastic increase in the power of computers in recent decades is well known. What is perhaps less appreciated is the fact that the number of computers and their interconnectedness is also rapidly increasing, along with the amount of information accessible to them. There is the possibility that computing power will continue to advance by multiple orders of magnitude; yet even if it does not, present technology is vastly underutilized. We can (and by all appearances, will) produce far more computers, connect them at greater speeds, and provide them with greater information storage.
Artificial intelligence of human problem-solving caliber (though it would probably not resemble a human mind very much in other ways) will be a reality within a generation. The only reason we don’t have high-level AI already is because we put almost no resources into developing it. Despite the lack of support, however, progress is bound to accelerate, as better tools are evolved. Sooner or later we will reach a point where AI systems can work out improvements to themselves, and then their intelligence will only be limited by our willingness to supply the hardware. Inevitably, computers (or computing systems) will wind up being smart than us. A lot smarter. One consequence is that just about every conceivable human occupation – except perhaps for prostitution – will be able to be performed by a computer or a robot. Another is that scientific progress might come far faster. If it took thousands of human geniuses over two hundred years to get from f=ma to e=mc2 and unleash the power of nuclear reactions, how soon can thousands of superhuman geniuses, working twenty-four seven with instant access to virtually infinite calculating power and to each other’s ideas, reach the next great breakthrough in physics and unleash – who knows what? The repeal of every physical law we now think inviolable?
Biotechnology is not so far along – at present we are still trying to figure out how the absurdly complex machine we call a living organism works. But we’re on our way. We’ve mapped out a number of genomes, including our own, and even worked out the entire structure and functioning of a few viruses. We have crude techniques for splicing up new genes, and the techniques are getting better. It’s only a matter of time before we can make any change we want to the structure or biochemistry of any organism – at least, whatever can be done with proteins, which judging by the immense variety of traits of existing species is one hell of a lot. Curing cancer and every genetic infirmity or weakness ever known is just the beginning. We can make ourselves twice as intelligent, add extra limbs or sensory organs if we want to go to the trouble, and probably increase our lifespan to thousands of years or more. With enough design work (probably done by intelligent computers), we could engineer a human that could stay underwater for hours and swim with the help of webbed feet – or we could make a dolphin smarter, give it hands and a larynx. Need more land? We’ll design microorganisms to make more of it by assembling chemicals from seawater (corals already do it), or to digest Martian rock and shit out oxygen and water. Need more fuel? We’ll design a plant to turn sunshine directly into hydrocarbons. Polluted the Earth? All we need are microbes designed to break down toxic wastes or sequester carbon dioxide or whatever. Many of our machines and robots could be augmented or replaced by genetically engineered organisms – if only because they’re self-replicating, self-repairing, and don’t require mining for raw materials. We can design our bio-tools to be plugged directly into the global computer network – hell, we can plug ourselves in too.
Genetic engineering will probably also be the route by which we acquire nanotechnology. As vast as the potential for biotechnology is, compared to nanotech it’s sandlot stuff. In case you don’t know (and you should), nanotech means building machines out of individual atoms. I’m not going to go into the science of it here unless someone asks, but the essential things are that nanomachines can be extremely small (obviously), so that thousands of them can fit into a single cell and a supercomputer can fit in a thimble; they can do certain things quite fast, that can be divided into a large number of very small operations (like assembling a large object); they can have a long, perhaps unlimited, working life, if properly designed; they can theoretically have a power to weight ratio millions of times greater than ordinary machines; they can be made to operate from a fairly complex program even if they are very small; and, perhaps most importantly, nanomachines can be designed to replicate themselves – and very quickly at that.
Nanotechnology is something like biotechnology multiplied by a thousand. It’s like taking the minute processes of cellular biochemistry and replacing the clunky soup haphazardly shaped by random evolution with custom-built machines. It’s like automobiles over horses, but at the cellular level – and the machines can be programmed to repair themselves, too. Wheels and gears – which nature has failed to create in three billion years – will replace sloppy, bulky enzymes with their endless chains of non-functional amino acids. Nanotech is still a long way off (and I’m not going to go into the obstacles here, either), but there’s every reason to believe that it will be achieved, and probably within this century.
If genetic engineering is certain to redefine “human” in radical ways, nanotech will erase the definition entirely. It would be entirely possible to make an exact record of your brain – by sending in trillions of robots to map every connection, or by freezing your brain and dismantling it atom by atom (which is what the cryogenics people are hoping for) – and then transfer its function to a programmable computer. You could even simulate the effects of your glands, if you wanted to; you could also be reprogrammed (voluntarily or otherwise) or merged with someone else’s mind or with other kinds of programs. When medical science finally allows a direct interface between brain and computer, the mind-body connection is likely to become blurred; when nanotech allows the separation of mind from body, the connection will disappear and mind will become something other than what it has been.
What the outcome of such a process, or even of advances in AI and biotech alone, might be is unknowable, but I am of course willing to hazard a guess. What I expect is that individuals as we know them will either cease to exist or become marginalized. A super-intelligence will emerge, composed of many interconnected minds (organic or electronic), that will control most of the material entities and processes on Earth. The minds making up this macro-organism might be unaware of its existence, and might still consider themselves autonomous, but they would act in unison. Those outside it would be under its firm control in all significant matters, though perhaps indirectly enough to allow them to maintain an illusion of individuality. They might even serve a vital function, mediating between the world-mind and its “body” – the material organisms and machines of the Earth. Otherwise, they would be merely parasites – and dispensable.
We may (if we harbor a certain nostalgia for humanity per se) hope that something human-like will still exist in the future, and that it will perhaps even exist in some comfort. It might, after all, be easier to maintain the existence of inferior entities that serve an organic function, than to eliminate them and replace them with something more efficient. Every cell in your body contains hundreds of mitochondria – descendants of parasites which invaded our single-celled ancestors billions of years ago and made themselves useful. Without them, you’d die in a split second. The job they do could probably be done more efficiently by a custom-made system, without the burden of the mitochondrial DNA and membranes and so on, but why bother? We can readily afford whatever resources they waste, so there’s no reason to mess with them even if we thought we could.
A century or two from now, whatever is left of humanity may have the same kind of security that mitochondria do – that of being useful, humble, and powerless. After billions of years of symbiotic existence, mitochondria are still very successful by bacterial standards – there’s a hell of a lot of them – but they have no say in the control of the organism, don’t even comprehend its existence. We ourselves may be similarly left behind – in degenerate dependency, prospering by our own standard, but having no influence over the macro-organism that we are a part of, whose nature and goals we do not comprehend because they are so far beyond our scope.
If we’re lucky, that is. We might turn out to be easier to ditch than mitochondria, after all.