We are entering an era of scientific change that is rocking no less than human nature itself. This directed evolution is unprecedented. It is convulsing everything from the affairs of state, to defense, to commerce, to labor, to education, to health, to welfare, to the economy. It is not science fiction. It has begun to occur and is accelerating this decade. You need an advisor who can help you try to ride this curve of change.
Human organization is always structured by the technology of the time—"We shape our houses, then they shape us," as Churchill put it. But culture moves more slowly than invention.
So in the '50s, for example, we may very well have been rocked by the atomic bomb, television, mass-produced suburban housing, and all the rest. Yet the '50s was the notoriously quiet Eisenhower decade. The cultural upheaval of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll—enabled by The Pill, synthetic psychedelics and the transistor—did not occur until the '60s.
Similarly, the '90s saw the rise of a suite of technologies that are fundamentally altering the underpinnings of our world. These are genomics, robotics, information networking, and nanotechnology. Yet the '90s was an astonishingly quiescent decade. The big news was peace, prosperity, and Monica.
Only now are we beginning to sense a hinge in history, a time when the earth is beginning to move beneath our feet. For only now is technology augmenting and enhancing our very bodies and minds and personalities.
This transformation of humanity demands leadership. It needs a guide to what is being born. It will require someone with a road map and a tout sheet and a cultural compass to the driving forces behind this transformation, identifying opportunities. It needs a chief of state who will provide a sense of intention. We can't live without this transformation and we can't kill it. Trying to let it pass will only turn our lives into a political and philosophical curiosity.
For all recorded history, humans have been trying to transcend human nature: Think of Socratic reasoning, Buddhist enlightenment, Christian sainthood, Cartesian logic or the Marxists’ "New Man." Now such transformation may actually be in reach because of technology. Is it a good idea after all?
Little stands in the way of the transcendence of human nature occurring in your lifetime 20 to 50 years from now. That's the one thing on which everyone who looks at this compounding curve of change agrees. You can get an argument about whether this is inevitable. Biotech critic Francis Fukuyama proposes a broad program of government intervention to preserve the human nature we've always known. Others scoff, saying such efforts are like placing a rock in a stream. There are more than enough labs run by brave souls in adventurous parts of the world for events to just flow around any barriers.
You can also find disagreement about whether the biological revolution or the computer revolution first will lead us to becoming trans-human. Gregory Stock, director of the UCLA Program on Medicine, Technology and Society, foresees widespread reworking of human biology via genetic engineering that cannot be stopped by either governments or religious groups. Others, like the much-honored computer pioneer Ray Kurzweil, agree with Stock that the biogenetic changes will take place, but believes that we also see profound integration of our biological systems with non biological intelligence, enabling routine integration of machines and the brain by 2030. As you know, Mr. President, your Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has already demonstrated remarkable progress on this front this year.
What none of these scientists dispute is the notion that as exponential technological change continues to accelerate into the first half of the 21st century, "it will appear to explode into infinity, at least from the limited and linear perspective of contemporary humans," as Kurzweil puts it. This will result in "technological change so rapid and profound that it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history."
The towering question is whether this is good or bad. In the near term, the world could divide up into three kinds of humans. One would be the Enhanced, who embrace these opportunities. A second would be the Naturals, who have the technology available but who, like today's vegetarians, choose not to indulge for moral or aesthetic reasons. Finally, there would be The Rest those without access to these technologies for financial or geographic reasons, lagging behind, envying or despising those with ever-increasing choices. Especially if the Enhanced can easily be recognized because of the way they look, or what they can do, this is a recipe for conflict that would make racial or religious differences quaintly obsolete.
There are a variety of scenarios for such a future. One critical uncertainty is whether the technology is seen as benign or malignant. Another is whether society coheres during this transformation or bursts into shards. Some of the possible outcomes: The secrets of human consciousness and the human brain elude us, and the change is stately. Or incremental change continues to accelerate, aging is reversed, the revolution has occurred, and we are just trying to deal with the consequences. Another possibility: new intelligent species roam the Earth in 20 or 30 years, some of them mainly flesh and blood, and some of them mainly not.
In whatever case, what we're talking about here is transcendence becoming separate from or going beyond the gritty world we've always known. The realm of religion and mythology is being challenged by that of science and technology as the key to overcoming the confines of human nature. This is the stuff of Nietzsche, in his declaration that "Man is a rope, fastened between animal and overman a rope over an abyss. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal."
"To me, that is what human civilization is all about," says Kurzweil. "It is part of our destiny and part of the destiny of evolution to continue to progress ever faster, and to grow the power of intelligence exponentially. To contemplate stopping that to think human beings are fine the way they are is a misplaced remembrance of what human beings used to be. What human beings are is a species that has undergone a cultural and technological evolution, and it's the nature of evolution that it accelerates, and that its powers grow exponentially, and that's what we're talking about."
The question then becomes whether we want to be evolving human nature beyond what we've known for millennia. They involve difficult choices. These go to those eternal questions of who we are, how we got that way, where we're headed, and what makes us tick.
Cultural revolution correspondent, The Washington Post
Principal, The Garreau Group
Author of Edge City: Life on the New Frontier and The Nine Nations of North America