"Is technology going to 'wake up' or 'come alive' anytime in the future?"

Bill Joy, the prominent computer scientist, argued in a Wired article last year that "the future doesn't need us" because other creatures, artificial or just post-human, are going to take over the world in the 21st century. He is worried that various technologies — particularly robotics, genetic engineering and nanotechnology — are soon going to be capable of generating either a self-conscious machine (something like the Internet "waking up") or one capable of self-replication (nanotechnologists inspired by the vision of Eric Drexler are currently attempting to create a nano-scaled "universal assembler"). If either of these events came to pass, it would surely introduce major changes in the planetary ecology, and humans would have to find a new role to play in such a world. But is Joy right? Do we have to worry about mad scientists producing some invention that inadvertently renders us second-class citizens to machines in the next couple of decades? (Joy is so distraught by this prospect he would have everyone stop working in these areas.)

This is a difficult question to answer, mostly because we don't currently have a very good idea about how technology evolves, so it's hard to predict future developments. But I believe that we can get some way toward an answer by adopting an approach currently being developed by some of our best evolutionary thinkers, such as John Maynard Smith, Eors Szathmary, and others. This "major transition" theory is concerned with determining the conditions under which new kinds of agents emerge in some evolutionary lineage. Examples of such transitions occurred when prokaryotes became eukaryotes, or single-celled organisms became multi cellular. In each case, previously independent biological agents evolved new methods of cooperation, with the result that a new level of organization and agency appeared in the world. This theory hasn't yet been applied to the evolution of technology, but could help to pinpoint important issues. In effect, what I want to investigate is whether the futures that disturb Bill Joy can be appropriately analyzed as major transitions in the evolution of technology. Given current trends in science and technology, can we say that a global brain is around the corner, or that nano-robots are going to conquer the Earth? That, at least, is my current project.

Robert Aunger is an evolutionary theorist and editor of Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science.