Winter is typically flu season, and talk around the water cooler in 2009 has turned to the H1N1 virus, the so-called “swine flu.” Many wonder if it might be comparable to the 1918 influenza virus that caused the catastrophic and historic pandemic of 1918–1919. In 2005, in an act of random stupidity, the U.S. Department of health and human Services published the full genome of the 1918 influenza virus on the Internet in the GenBank database. Essentially, the blueprint to build a dangerous flu virus was made available to anyone with an Internet connection.
This prompted a scathing Op-Ed piece in the New York Times from an unlikely duo — Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy. “This is extremely foolish,” they commented. “The genome is essentially the design of a weapon of mass destruction. No responsible scientist would advocate publishing precise designs for an atomic bomb, and in two ways revealing the sequence for the flu virus is even more dangerous.” Kurzweil and Joy went so far as to call for a “new Manhattan Project” to develop specific defenses against viral threats, whether natural or man-made.
Ray Kurzweil, of course, is well known to h+ readers as the author of the seminal book, The Singularity is Near, and more recently as a founder (with funding from Google and NASA Ames Research Center) of Singularity University. Bill Joy, cofounder and former Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems, is known as a critic of Kurzweil’s technological optimism — but not necessarily his predictions. In a now-famous piece published in the April 2000 edition of Wired magazine entitled “Why the future doesn’t need us,” Joy suggested that our most powerful 21st century technologies — genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) – are threatening to make humans an endangered species. In 2003, Kurzweil responded to Joy and acknowledged, “Technology has always been a double-edged sword, empowering both our creative and our destructive natures. It has brought us longer and healthier lives, freedom from physical and mental drudgery, and many new creative possibilities. Yet it has also introduced new and salient dangers.”
That Kurzweil and Joy would team up to warn the public of the dangers of the “G” in “GNR” in their 2005 Op-Ed piece is commentary enough. Yet, the promise of the GNR technologies is clear even to Joy. “Each of these technologies also offers untold promise: The vision of near immortality that Kurzweil sees in his robot dreams drives us forward; genetic engineering may soon provide treatments, if not outright cures, for most diseases; and nanotechnology and nanomedicine can address yet more ills,” writes Joy. “Together they could significantly extend our average life span and improve the quality of our lives. Yet, with each of these technologies, a sequence of small, individually sensible advances leads to an accumulation of great power and, concomitantly, great danger.”
Much research has occurred since Kurzweil and Joy first brought broader public awareness of these emerging 21st-century technologies. Emerging — as well as converging — these technologies now include the GNR technologies plus cognitive science and neurotechnology: the newer formulation is Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno (NBIC). U.S. government studies now recognize that the convergence of the NBIC technologies can vastly “improve human performance over the next ten to twenty years.”
h+ contacted Professor Nick Bostrom of the James Martin 21st Century School at Oxford University to ask him about NBIC convergence as well as Joy’s concerns for the future of the human species. Professor Bostrom, also the director of the Future of Humanity Institute, confirmed the danger, but with some significant qualifications. “Some of the biggest existential risks come from expected future developments in the NBIC technologies area,” he suggests. “To that extent Joy is right.” But, he goes on, “Joy also suggested that our response to this threat should be to relinquish exploration of some fairly large parts of this area.” He points out that this is a complicated proposition. “First, we might need some advanced NBIC capacities to realize humanity’s potential. A permanent failure to develop these capacities could itself constitute an existential risk,” he suggests. For example, NBIC offers the potential to alleviate human suffering and to accelerate access to sustainable energy, abundant food, and universal healthcare on a global basis. Many preventable deaths might occur as a result of not developing NBIC.
“Second,” Bostrom continues, “it may be practically infeasible to gain universal adherence to a decision to relinquish these potential echnologies. One must then ask whether a partial relinquishment — say to which only the most conscientious agents adhere — will make us safer or whether it will instead increase the danger by handing the reins to those who lack scruples.” As with 20th century nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) technologies, the risk of rogue states and terrorism require vigilance on the part of modern industrial nations.
From bits to genes to atoms to neurons: what’s clear is that the U.S. government is moving ahead with funding for the NBIC technologies, and likely for reasons of strategic global positioning as much as for the potential to improve the condition of humanity as a whole.
Here’s a brief summary of the NBIC Technologies:
NANOTECHNOLOGY: Technology related to features of nanometer scale (10 meters): thin films, fine particles, chemical synthesis, advanced microlithography, and so forth.
BIOTECHNOlOGY: The application of science and engineering to the direct or indirect use of living organisms, or parts or products of living organisms, in their natural or modified forms.
INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY: Applied computer systems, both hardware and software, including networking and telecommunications.
COGNITIVE SCIENCE: The study of intelligence and intelligent systems, with particular reference to intelligent behavior as computation.
What Happens When 21st Century Technologies Converge?
The National Science Foundation (NSF) and a formidable-sounding government subcommittee called the National Science and Technology Council on Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology have published a number of reports exploring the convergence of the NBIC technologies as the result of a series of conferences between 2001 and 2006. The chief application areas they’ve identified include:
• Expanding human cognition and communication,
• Improving human health and physical capabilities,
• Enhancing group and societal outcomes,
• Strengthening national security, and
• Unifying science and education.
The convergence, these reports suggest, will be based on the “unity of nature at the nanoscale” along with technology integration at the nanoscale, key transforming tools, and the pursuit of improvements in human performance. “A revolution is occurring in science and technology, based on the recently developed ability to measure, manipulate and organize matter on the nanoscale — 1 to 100 billionths of a meter,” writes William Sims Bainbridge, co-director of Human-Centered Computing at the NSF and co-editor with Mihail Roco of several NSF publications on NBIC. “At the nanoscale, physics, chemistry, biology, materials science, and engineering converge toward the same principles and tools. As a result, progress in nanoscience will have very far-reaching impact.”
Some of the application areas identified in the NSF publications are far-reaching, but the pace of proposed development — including social and political factors — is perhaps somewhat more conservative than the exponential acceleration predicted by Kurzweil and acknowledged by Joy. Let’s take a closer look.
Expanding Human Cognition and Communication
“The human mind can be significantly enhanced through technologically augmented cognition, perception, and communication,” writes Bainbridge. “Research will focus both on the brain and the ambient socio-cultural milieu, which both shapes and is shaped by individual thought and behavior.” Specific technology includes personal sensory device interfaces and enhanced tools for creativity along with continued humanization of computers, robots, and information systems.
There’s a huge potential for the convergence of key NBIC technologies to alleviate human suffering and accelerate access to sustainable energy, abundant food, and universal healthcare.
Improving Human Health and Physical Capabilities
“Nano-bio sensors and processors will contribute greatly to research and to development of treatments, including those resulting from bioinformatics, genomics and proteomics,” suggests Bainbridge. Specific technologies include implants based on nanotechnology and regenerative biosystems that will start to replace human organs, and nanoscale machines unobtrusively providing needed medical intervention. Advances in cognitive science will provide insights to help people avoid unhealthy lifestyles and information technology will create virtual environment tools to facilitate diagnoses and train medical professionals.
Enhancing Group and Societal Outcomes
“Nano-enabled microscale data devices will identify every product and place, and individuals will merge their personal databases as they choose which groups and interaction networks to join,” writes Bainbridge. “Group productivity tools will radically enhance the ability of people to imagine and create revolutionary new products and services based on the integration of the four technologies from the nanoscale.”
The combination of nanotechnology and information technology will produce “sensor nets capable of instantly detecting chemical, biological, radiological and explosive threats and able to direct immediate and effective countermeasures,” says Bainbridge. And here come the robots and drones — “uninhabited combat vehicles and human-machine interfaces” will enhance both attack capabilities and survivability. The hope is that developments initially achieved at high cost for defense purposes will be transferred over time to low-cost civilian applications for the general benefit of society.
Unifying Science and Education
The NSF studies conclude that scientific education needs radical transformation from elementary school through post-graduate training. Convergence of previously separate scientific and engineering disciplines “cannot take place without the emergence of new kinds of people who understand multiple fields in depth and can intelligently work to integrate them,” states Bainbridge.
NBIC and You
NBIC will likely be used to enhance intelligence, mobility, cognitive qualities, vision and hearing. “I think we will stop short of eugenics but proceed to offer neurological and physical enhancements that improve the quality of life under the umbrella of medicine,” writes James Canton of the Institute for Global Futures. “Industry is watching this debate closely. Boomers are also watching this debate and will influence the outcome, based on their health economic investments.”
Canton asks whether people in a free society have the right to enhance their memory, augment their intelligence, maximize their pleasure, and even change their physical forms on demand. He suggests that this will become a human rights issue in the 21st century. “Longevity medicine, life extension, and the augmentation of human performance will become features of our global culture in the near future,” he argues.
Just as we battle over the right to life today, it’s almost a given that we will battle in the future over the right to personal enhancement. New and radical choices will be available to parents who want certain characteristics for their unborn children — for example, augmentation of intelligence or corrective genetic procedures. Improvement and human performance enhancing drugs and neurotechnological devices are already entering the global marketplace.
Some, like environmentalist Bill McKibben, argue that we are not in need of radical overhaul, improvement, or augmentation, that “we are plenty good enough.” Clearly there will be those who choose to remain unenhanced as well as those who choose radical augmentation/enhancement.
NBIC and Your Dog or Cat
“There is a lot of suffering in the natural world,” suggests Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom. “If we had the capability to mitigate this in some acceptable way, it seems to me that we would have a moral obligation to do so.”
If humans can be augmented and enhanced, then what about our fellow non-human Earth-bound species? This might bring to mind horrific images of the “Beast Folk” in H.G. Wells’ story The Island of Doctor Moreau. There are clearly some very difficult moral questions in this area. Biological uplift is the act of biologically enhancing non- human animals. Bostrom acknowledges some uncertainty in this area. “As for cognitively enhancing animals, well, intuitively it seems like we ought to enhance/treat a brain-damaged human but that there would be no particular moral reason to uplift an amoeba (to take two extremes),” he ponders. “Perhaps one could think in terms of whether a being has a ’morally relevant interest’ in being enhanced. Maybe the amoeba has no morally relevant interests at all.” He cautions against rushing to conclusions regarding this controversial topic without more thought.
The following timeline for converging NBIC technologies was tabulated from dozens of authors and presenters who participated in the first three NSF-sponsored NBIC conferences (as of 2006).
• Anywhere in the world, an individual will have instantaneous access to needed information, whether practical or scientific in nature, in a form tailored for most effective use by the particular individual.
• New organizational structures and management principles based on fast, reliable communication of needed information will vastly increase the effectiveness of administrators in business, education, and government.
• Comfortable, wearable sensors and computers will enhance every person’s awareness of his or her health condition, environment, chemical pollutants, potential hazards, and information of interest about local businesses, natural resources, and the like.
• People from all backgrounds and of all ranges of ability will learn valuable new knowledge and skills more reliably and quickly, whether in school, on the job, or at home.
• Individuals and teams will be able to communicate and cooperate profitably across traditional barriers of culture, language, distance, and professional specialization, thus greatly increasing the effectiveness of groups, organizations, and multinational partnerships.
• National security will be greatly strengthened by lightweight, information-rich war-fighting systems, capable uninhabited combat vehicles, adaptable smart materials, invulnerable data networks, superior intelligence gathering systems, and effective measures against biological, chemical, radiological, and nuclear attacks.
• Engineers, artists, architects, and designers will experience tremendously expanded creative abilities, both with a variety of new tools and through improved understanding of the wellsprings of human creativity.
• Average persons, as well as policymakers, will have a vastly improved awareness of the cognitive, social, and biological forces operating their lives, enabling far better adjustment, creativity, and daily decision-making.
• Factories of tomorrow will be organized around converging technologies and increased human-machine capabilities as intelligent environments that achieve the maximum benefits of both mass production and custom design.
• Agriculture and the food industry will greatly increase yields and reduce spoilage through networks of cheap, smart sensors that constantly monitor the condition and needs of plants, animals, and farm products.
• The work of scientists will be revolutionized by the importation of approaches pioneered in other sciences, for example, genetic research employing principles from natural language processing and cultural research employing principles from genetics.
• Robots and software agents will be far more useful for human beings, because they will operate on principles compatible with human goals, awareness, and personality.
• The human body will be more durable, healthier, more energetic, easier to repair, and more resistant to many kinds of stress, biological threats, and aging processes.
• A combination of technologies and treatments will compensate for many physical and mental disabilities and will eradicate altogether some handicaps that have plagued the lives of millions of people.
• Fast, broadband interfaces between the human brain and machines will transform work in factories, control automobiles, ensure military superiority, and enable new sports, art forms and modes of interaction between people.
• Machines and structures of all kinds, from homes to aircraft, will be constructed of materials that have exactly the desired properties, including the ability to adapt to changing situations, and increase energy efficiency and environmental friendliness.
• The ability to control the genetics of humans, animals, and agricultural plants will greatly benefit human welfare; widespread consensus about ethical, legal, and moral issues will be built in the process.
• Transportation will be safe, cheap, and fast, due to ubiquitous real-time information systems, extremely high-efficiency vehicle designs, and the use of synthetic materials and machines fabricated from the nanoscale for optimum performance.
• Formal education will be transformed by a unified but diverse curriculum based on a comprehensive, hierarchical intellectual paradigm for understanding the architecture of the physical world from the nanoscale through the cosmic scale.
• The vast promise of outer space will finally be realized by means of efficient launch vehicles, robotic construction of extraterrestrial bases, and profitable exploitation of the resources of the Moon, Mars, or near-Earth asteroids.
Does the Future Need NBIC?
It seems clear that there’s a huge potential for the convergence of key NBIC technologies to alleviate human suffering and to accelerate access to sustainable energy, abundant food, and universal healthcare. The social risks associated with not furthering the use of NBIC to share the wealth of innovations “may destabilize global security in the future,” concludes NSF’s William Bainbridge. “Future dangers from new technologies may appear alarming when considered in the context of today’s unprepared world,” writes Ray Kurzweil. “The reality is that the sophistication and power of our defensive technologies and knowledge will grow along with the dangers. When we have ‘gray goo’ (unrestrained nanobot replication), we will also have ‘blue goo’ (‘police’ nanobots that combat the ‘bad’ nanobots)."
“Possibly the best approach is a more fine-grained one,” suggests Oxford’s Nick Bostrom. “There are some research areas where safety is served by pushing ahead as hard as possible. For example, research into how to safely manage an upload transition, or how to ensure that a seed artificial intelligence would remain human-friendly, or how to enhance human rationality, wisdom, and moral responsibility, or how to rapidly detect new pathogens in the environment — these seem like risk-reducing enterprises.
“By contrast,” Bostrom continues, “research to develop advanced biological warfare agents or to invent self-enhancing artificial general intelligence before the friendliness problem has been solved — these appear to increase risk, and one would do well to discourage research in those areas.”
“This is a race, warns Kurzweil, “and there is no alternative.”
Surfdaddy Orca is another monkey with a laptop and a cell phone waiting for Godot or the Singularity or whatever comes next. While he waits, he writes regularly for the h+ website.
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