Why We Could All Use a Heavy Dose of Techno-optimism
At a recent TED Conference, a dinner was organized by the Edge Foundation, a think tank and nonprofit that celebrates big ideas. The theme of the evening was the “New Age of Wonder,” and the discussion drew comparisons to the Romantic Age, the period between 1770 and 1830 when science and art were friends. It was a time when astronomers and poets were in some ways indistinguishable, as artists were inspired by science’s intoxicating sense of awe and wonder. Somewhere down the line, however, these two worlds became disjointed.
Perhaps until now. We’re on the cusp of a bio-tech/nanotech/artificial-intelligence revolution that will open up new worlds of exploration. And we should open our minds to the limitless, mind-boggling possibilities.
According to physicist and writer Freeman Dyson, in this New Age of Wonder, “a new generation of artists will write genomes with the fluency that Blake and Byron wrote verses.” Take that in for just a minute: he’s saying we will be applying our creative artistry onto the fabric of what we are.
Here are a few predictions of what we might see:
• Contact lenses as computers. The lenses will have L.E.D. circuits with pattern recognition and high-speed Internet connection, the results of which will overlay the digital world on top of the real world, creating an augmented reality. Basically this means the lenses could make an invisible computer appear right in front of you.
• A Cure for Death. Biogerontologist Aubrey De Grey travels the world promoting the investigation of new rejuvenation therapies to make all of us live to a 1,000 years old. He believes aging is simply a disease we haven’t cured yet that robs 100,000 people per day from their lives, loves, and vitality. He calls his research S.E.N.S.: Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. (I explored this idea in my film The Immortalists.)
• Designing human brains. Best-selling author, futurist, and inventor Ray Kurzweil says we’re less than three decades away from reverse-engineering the human brain on a computer and creating a smarter-than-human intelligence. (IBM hopes to reverse-engineer the human brain by 2030.) Kurzweil argues we will then merge with this intelligence and become post-biological, meaning still human, and yet something better. At that point we’ll easily back up our minds the way we back up digital photos, eventually moving our consciousness onto the Internet.
• The cure to all illnesses. Blood-cell-sized medical nanorobots will reverse-engineer us from the inside so we’ll never stay sick.
There are others currently pushing the boundaries of what’s possible—mavericks ushering in what is said to be an age of computers and biology and a return to wonder. Some might say that we’re tinkering with forces we don’t fully understand. But I argue that the developments of these technologies are precisely what it means to be human: our history is characterized by relentless curiosity and our uncanny ability to transcend the limits of what is deemed possible.
We’re the first technology-creating species. We use technology to extend our reach. We didn’t stay in the caves, and we haven’t stayed on the planet. To play jazz with our genomes and the universe might ultimately be what we’re all about. Biologist Edward O. Wilson was right on when he said, “We have decommissioned natural selection … the force that made us … soon we must look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become.” (Or, as British science-fiction author, inventor, and futurist Arthur C. Clarke put it, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)
If the process of life is about moving toward increased complexity and organization, a sort of sublime unfolding of greater and greater self-organizing systems, then we’re actually doing pretty well. Certainly there are challenges ahead, but there’s also profound potential for greatness. The Large Hadron Collider is only the latest example of mankind’s magnificent undertakings.
We must not be afraid to push boundaries; instead we should leverage our science and our technology, together with our creativity and our curiosity, to solve the world’s problems. Perhaps Stewart Brand was right: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” After all, with great power comes great responsibility.