My version of the Terror is different. We can already see how the biotechnology industry is setting itself up for decades of expensive software trouble. While there are all sorts of useful databases and modeling packages being developed by biotech firms and labs, they all exist in isolated developmental bubbles. Each such tool expects the world to conform to its requirements. Since the tools are so valuable, the world will do exactly that, but we should expect to see vast resources applied to the problem of getting data from bubble into another. There is no giant monolithic electronic brain being created with biological knowledge. There is instead a fractured mess of data and modeling fiefdoms. The medium for biological data transfer will continue to be sleep-deprived individual human researchers until some fabled future time when we know how to make software that is good at bridging bubbles on its own.
What is a long term future scenario like in which hardware keeps getting better and software remains mediocre? The great thing about crummy software is the amount of employment it generates. If Moore's Law is upheld for another twenty or thirty years, there will not only be a vast amount of computation going on Planet Earth, but also the maintenance of that computation will consume the efforts of almost every living person. We're talking about a planet of helpdesks.
I have argued elsewhere that this future would be a great thing, realizing the socialist dream of full employment by capitalist means. But let's consider the dark side.
Among the many processes that information systems make more efficient is the process of capitalism itself. A nearly friction-free economic environment allows fortunes to be accumulated in a few months instead of a few decades, but the individuals doing the accumulating are still living as long as they used to; longer, in fact. So those individuals who are good at getting rich have a chance to get richer before they die than their equally talented forebears.
There are two dangers in this. The smaller, more immediate danger is that young people acclimatized to a deliriously receptive economic environment might be emotionally wounded by what the rest of us would consider brief returns to normalcy. I do sometimes wonder if some of the students I work with who have gone on to dot com riches would be able to handle any financial frustration that lasted more than a few days without going into some sort of destructive depression or rage.
The greater danger is that the gulf between the richest and the rest could become transcendently grave. That is, even if we agree that a rising tide raises all ships, if the rate of the rising of the highest ships is greater than that of the lowest, they will become ever more separated. (And indeed, concentrations of wealth and poverty have increased during the Internet boom years in America.)
If Moore's Law or something like it is running the show, the scale of the separation could become astonishing. This is where my Terror resides, in considering the ultimate outcome of the increasing divide between the ultra-rich and the merely better off.
With the technologies that exist today, the wealthy and the rest aren't all that different; both bleed when pricked, for the classic example. But with the technology of the next twenty or thirty years they might become quite different indeed. Will the ultra-rich and the rest even be recognizable as the same species by the middle of the new century?
The possibilities that they will become essentially different species are so obvious and so terrifying that there is almost a banality in stating them. The rich could have their children made genetically more intelligent, beautiful, and joyous. Perhaps they could even be genetically disposed to have a superior capacity for empathy, but only to other people who meet some narrow range of criteria. Even stating these things seems beneath me, as if I were writing pulp science fiction, and yet the logic of the possibility is inescapable.
Let's explore just one possibility, for the sake of argument. One day the richest among us could turn nearly immortal, becoming virtual Gods to the rest of us. (An apparent lack of aging in both cell cultures and in whole organisms has been demonstrated in the laboratory.)
Let's not focus here on the fundamental questions of near immortality: whether it is moral or even desirable, or where one would find room if immortals insisted on continuing to have children. Let's instead focus on the question of whether immortality is likely to be expensive.
My guess is that immortality will be cheap if information technology gets much better, and expensive if software remains as crummy as it is.
I suspect that the hardware/software dichotomy will reappear in biotechnology, and indeed in other 21st century technologies. You can think of biotechnology as an attempt to make flesh into a computer, in the sense that biotechnology hopes to manage the processes of biology in ever greater detail, leading at some far horizon to perfect control. Likewise, nanotechnology hopes to do the same thing for materials science. If the body, and the material world at large become more manipulatable, more like a computer's memory, then the limiting factor will be the quality of the software that governs the manipulation.
Even though it's possible to program a computer to do virtually anything, we all know that's really not a sufficient description of computers. As I argued above: Getting computers to perform specific tasks of significant complexity in a reliable but modifiable way, without crashes or security breaches, is essentially impossible. We can only approximate this goal, and only at great expense.
Likewise, one can hypothetically program DNA to make virtually any modification in a living thing, and yet designing a particular modification and vetting it thoroughly will likely remain immensely difficult. (And, as I argued above, that might be one reason why biological evolution has never found a way to be anything speed other than very slow.) Similarly, one can hypothetically use nanotechnology to make matter do almost anything conceivable, but it will probably turn out to be much harder than we now imagine to get it do any particular thing of complexity without disturbing side effects. Scenarios that predict that biotechnology and nanotechnology will be able to quickly and cheaply create startling new things under the sun also must imagine that computers will become semi-autonomous, superintelligent, virtuoso engineers. But computers will do no such thing if the last half century of progress in software can serve as a predictor of the next half century.