One of Man's most remarkable characteristics is his ability to treat the incredible as ordinary and to live through life-transforming changes without stopping to reflect on the incredible uniqueness of these events. The next century will bring some amazing transformations but the fact is that the past is almost as hard to believe.
Where it all started
The story starts about forty thousand years ago … when a momentous event occurred on a small planet circling an ordinary star in the outer reaches of an unremarkable galaxy, just one of countless planets found in a galaxy of a hundred billion stars and a universe of a million billion galaxies. Certainly, this was a very unremarkable spot. Yet this event was undoubtedly the most important in the 4.5 billion year history of this planet and may one day prove to profoundly alter the future of the entire universe with its hundred million billion billion stars.
You see, at that time one of the species on the planet learned the secret of Lamarckian evolution, the trick of passing on acquired traits to one's offspring. Of course, Jean Lamarck imagined that sheep could turn into giraffes by stretching their necks to reach tasty leaves to eat. What actually happened proved to be far more revolutionary: the traits passed on were not physical but rather cultural and technological.
The explosive impact of this new form of evolution soon showed itself. Homo sapiens spent the next thirty thousand years obeying the Biblical imperative: to go forth and multiply, to establish his dominion over nature, Man developed new forms of weapons – improved spears, bows and arrows, nets, and more – with which he hunted down and destroyed all competitors to the title, including his stronger and brainier cousin, the Neanderthal (yes, the Neanderthal had a bigger brain than we do). In the process of establishing his undisputed mastery over the entire planet, Man also spread his control to every corner of the globe, including regions previously denied to him: Australia, the Americas and the Arctic.
As technological advances fed on each other, the pace of change accelerated. Not satisfied with achieving dominance over all of creation, Man began to modify the planet's ecology and to change his own society to suit his needs.
Ten thousand years ago he developed new life forms which he would use to control the fecundity of the planet. Cattle, sheep, corn and wheat would feed his family. Horses would give him transportation and dogs would protect his hearth. With the exception of the horse, none of these species ever existed in the wild and few could survive on their own. In fact, most of the new plants could not even so much as reproduce without human aid.
In the twinkling of an eye, Man had changed from a nomadic hunter-gatherer to a sedentary farmer. His modern descendants find this unremarkable, failing to notice the really important point: that Homo sapiens is the first species in the history of the planet – perhaps the entire universe – to alter its way of life without altering its genes.
Five thousand years ago human society changed again. For the first time individuals had to deal with people who they had never met, in fact people who they never would meet. In other words, the State appeared. Ultimately the State was forcibly imposed on the entire species with the help of still newer weapons, those using metals and gunpowder.
The State also brought another innovation. For the first time, a small fraction of humanity was lifted out of routine poverty and imminent danger of bodily harm, a fate which had been the lot of every living being (human or non-human) since the beginning of time. Of course this group did so by living on the backs of the vast majority, those who were appropriately called « subjects ». By the late Middle Ages, this new security spread from the Nobility to other classes, notably the urban bourgeoisie.
Two hundred and fifty years ago, the paradigm shifted again. Industrial capitalism appeared in a small island off the western coast of Europe. Capitalism soon spread east to the continent and west to North America. It is still spreading around the globe. New technologies developed still more rapidly and lifted entire continents out of poverty (the so-called poor in Western democracies have almost no notion of what true poverty really is: outright lack of food, clothing and shelter). With universal prosperity came ideologies supporting rights for all. The dominant political beliefs of this era – classical liberalism, democracy and socialism – all ultimately derive from the idea that every human being has rights. Of course, they disagree severely on the meaning of the word « rights ».
Then came the Twentieth Century. Among many other things, it spawned the Communication Revolution. The world became a single entity. Marshall McLuhan's Global Village was bound together by technologies like the telephone, the airplane, the television and finally the Internet. Global communication has become banal and ordinary.
It is important to understand how the rate of change has accelerated since the Cultural Revolution of forty thousand years ago. Previous to that event, significant change was measured on scales of millions of years (prior to the Cambrian epoch, it took billions). In the Stone Age, change took millennia, which the Agricultural Revolution reduced to centuries and the Industrial Revolution to decades. It's now down to mere years.
Consider the FAX. Twenty years ago it did not exist. At the time, a competing technology existed which we called the Teletext (a sort of combination word processor and Teletype). Today no one has ever heard of Teletext and the FAX machine is part of everyday life, found everywhere. Yet it too is already obsolescent, its functions taken over by the Internet and the computer scanner. Perhaps twenty-five years total from introduction to mass use to oblivion. The video store had a similar lifespan, replaced by on-line movie rental.
The century of magic. The Technological Singularity
In the future, the rate of technological progress will continue to accelerate. New technologies will come to fruition in mere months, perhaps even in days. We are rapidly approaching the cusp, the takeoff point, the moment at which the rate of progress becomes effectively infinite and all things become possible. The twenty-first century will see the penultimate stage in the transformation started by the Cultural Revolution (the final stage will see the revolution exported to the stars). In the past Man changed his pets and his societies. In the next stage, he will change his own nature. Want to grow gills and swim underwater? No problem. It will be easy to get rid of them after the vacation is over too. But while games like this will certainly be possible, the technologies coming in the next few years will have a far greater impact.
In the coming century, probably even within the next thirty years, Man will achieve virtually complete understanding of the workings of nature, complete control over the actions of every atom on the planet and instantaneous communication between all its parts. It is completely accurate to say that we are about to create Gaia, a living planet with an intelligence far surpassing our own.
It is exhilarating and exciting to live at this unique juncture in history. It is also more than a little frightening. We entered this century as human beings. We will leave it as Gods. The only real question is whether we will become one God or many. It is possible that we will discover that the question itself has no real meaning, that we will be at one and the same time part of Gaia and separate individuals. While we cannot know just yet, it is my belief that most of the people alive today will live to experience this transformation.
« It is exhilarating and exciting to live at this unique juncture in history. It is also more than a little frightening. We entered this century as human beings. We will leave it as Gods. »
If there are those who wish to keep their humanity, Gaia will be quite happy to let them live as parasites on her body. To prove her generosity, she will banish the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: War, Pestilence, Famine and even Death. Of course, it is not all clear that people who are liberated from the Horsemen can be considered human anymore than those who join the Gaian community.
The Technologies: Computers
In 1965 Gordon Moore, one of the co-founders of Intel, put forth the proposition that the power of computers doubles every 18 months. Amazingly, Moore's Law has held true for the following 35 years. When he first proposed his theory, about 60 transistors could be packed into one integrated circuit, up from one transistor per IC in 1959. The magic of geometric progression means that about 100 million transistors can be squeezed into an IC today.
Consequently, today's home computer is thousands of times more powerful than the multi-million dollar behemoths of 1965. They are connected together in a massive network covering the entire planet and much of the space around it. It is remarkable how quickly we have come to think of this as ordinary, especially since this Web is only about seven years old (yes I know, its origins date back to the sixties). And, while Gaia's nervous system will grow out of the Web, it will be far more pervasive.
Sometime in the next ten years, this progressive improvement in the power of computers will run up against some physical law and stop (there are several possible limits, the most important being that today's computer is wired with circuits only a few dozen atoms across). When the process finally does stop, a computer will pack between 10 and 100 billion transistors into each IC. At this point, computers will be roughly as intelligent as the higher mammals, Man being the only exception.
But while conventional computer technology will soon tap out, there is no reason to think that Moore's Law will fall by the wayside. The next step will be to eliminate the CPU, the bottleneck in the machine. The human brain contains about 10 billion neurons. There are already computers with as many transistors (remember that a computer contains more than one IC). Neurons and transistors are more or less the same thing: electrical switches. What's more, the transistor can change state millions of times faster.
So the secret of the human brain is all in the wiring. Knowing that it will soon be impossible to increase the power of computers by speeding them up and shrinking them down, researchers are starting to look at copying the wiring of our brains. When they succeed, they will have created an intelligence far more powerful than our own. Exactly when this will happen is hard to say: about twenty years for now seems to be a conservative guess. Add another 10 years and computer will be, by several orders of magnitude, more intelligent than human beings.
Meanwhile, other advances in computer technology over the next few years will transform the way that men and machines communicate. The primitive keyboard I am using to type these words will give way to voice recognition. The monitor you are reading them on will be replaced by tapestries which you hang on your halls, by electronic books and perhaps by glasses which put images directly on the retina of your eyes.
It is also probable that the first steps will be made towards connecting human beings directly into the Web, to giving you a sixth sense – the online connection. Direct Man-computer interfaces already exist, the earliest being the pacemaker. More likely direct connections between humans and computers will have to wait a bit, say into the second decade of the century.
Thus thirty years from now, we can expect to see hybrid man-machines with perhaps 1000 times the intelligence of a human being, almost all of which is endowed in the machine part. The machine « half » will be far faster, far more logical, with a memory far more accurate, than the human « half ». Is it reasonable to call the resultant combination human at all?
The technologies: biotechnology
The first fruits of biotechnology have been relatively innocuous – improved foodstuffs of various kinds: soybeans and corn are which are resistant to pests, tomatoes which are less likely to spoil, rice which supplies iron or Vitamin A or vaccines to those who eat it. Still, even this small start has been a huge boon. The soybeans and corn dramatically reduce the need for pesticides. A billion people in the Third World live on a diet which consists of rice, rice and more rice. That « golden rice » sits on a shelf on Geneva instead of being distributed throughout the Third World is a devastating indictment on the Luddites in the environmentalist movement.
The next generation of biotechnology products, about five to fifteen years down the road, will give us new drugs to cure diseases caused by genetic defects. Actually, many of these would already be on the market were it not for official incompetence. About a half-dozen cures for diabetes have been already announced. Sadly, thousands of people will die while the bureaucracy evaluates them. About 5-10 years from now, one of these curers will receive official approval and this age-old disease will follow smallpox into oblivion. Several other maladies, including Alzheimer's and drug addition, will fall at the same time.
The next stage – which is already underway – will be a serious attack on the problems of aging. This attack will be (is being) launched on multiple fronts. The most important include technologies to reverse the aging process and technologies to replace parts which have worn out.
A company in Texas is attempting to grow new teeth to replace those which have worn out. At startup (two years ago), they believed that it would take them twenty years to achieve their goal. They now think that they will be there in ten years from now. While replacing teeth is clearly easier than other body parts, can livers and hearts really be far behind?
Other companies are seriously attempting to understand (and reverse) the aging process itself. Several promising lines of research, from eliminating free radicals in the cell to correcting from division errors in chromosomes, are being explored. Most researchers expect to have answers within 5-10 years.
Between those who are trying to replace worn-out parts and those who are trying to rejuvenate them, it is reasonable to expect that someone will succeed in the near future.
The next step, which is also underway, is to improve on the genes instead of simply trying to enhance them and keep them at optimal efficiency. First human application? Perhaps 15 to 20 years away.
After that? Gills for a day.
The technologies: nanotechnology
In 1989, researchers at IBM's White Plains research facility used a tunnelling electron microscope to manipulate individual atoms. They pushed them around to spell out the letters « IBM ». While this was clearly a stunt (they used hugely expensive equipment to do the job), the fact remains that they succeeded in making individual atoms obey their will.
Other groups are addressing more ordinary concerns, with remarkable success.
A company in Israel has built a micro-camera in a pill about one-centimeter long. You swallow the pill and it passes through your digestive tract. The idea is that, on the road towards the rectum, it can take pictures of the small intestine in order to detect abnormal growths. The consensus of industry observers is that the company will fail since they can't control the path of the pill through the body. The observers may be right. Still... Count on it that the next generation will be able to control the path.
Defence contractors have already created drone aircraft the size of hummingbirds. They expect that the next generation will shrink to that of mosquitoes.
After that? Fantastic voyage. The pills will pilot their way through the blood stream instead of the alimentary canal. They will have built-in remedies for diseases designed by the techniques of the biotechnologists. They will pass these cures onto your cells; one cell at a time.
All of the above is almost certain to happen within the next thirty years. We will have a man who is virtually immortal, who is thousands of times more intelligent than a computer and who is capable of correcting his deformities one cell at a time.
It is important to understand that this vision is pessimistic about the future of technology. Computer architects imagine systems where each transistor is the equivalent of a neuron (and thus the system as a whole is billions of times powerful, instead of thousands). Biotechnologists dream of designer genes wherein they can give you any characteristic you desire. Nanoengineers want to push around individual atoms just like the IBM researchers do. The difference is that they believe they can do it in the context of a machine as ordinary as a Microwave oven.
Even if none of the dreamers succeed in their ambitions (and I think that they all will succeed), it is obvious that the human race is destined for oblivion in the next few years. A man-machine in which the machine is far more powerful is not human. A man with designer genes is not either.
Still, I hope that a certain respect will continue to be maintained for our evolutionary past. I personally hope to be respected as one of the Old Ones, those who were there before the Change. I wish to wander throughout the universe, to explore the galaxy and things still further out there.
Still, I do not know. Maybe Gaia will decide that all of us Old Ones are obsolescent. Maybe she will. I hope not but I am still willing to take the chance because the alternative is Death – and Death can ruin your whole day.