January 20, 2006 at 8:43 am #9916
“What is your dangerous idea?” Over one hundred big thinkers answered this
question, as part of The Edge’s Annual Question for 2006
Ray Kurzweil’s dangerous idea?
We can achieve immortality in our lifetime.
My dangerous idea is the near-term inevitability of radical life extension
and expansion. The idea is dangerous, however, only when contemplated from
current linear perspectives.
First the inevitability: the power of information technologies is doubling
each year, and moreover comprises areas beyond computation, most notably our
knowledge of biology and of our own intelligence. It took 15 years to
sequence HIV and from that perspective the genome project seemed impossible
in 1990. But the amount of genetic data we were able to sequence doubled
every year while the cost came down by half each year.
We finished the genome project on schedule and were able to sequence SARS in
only 31 days. We are also gaining the means to reprogram the ancient
information processes underlying biology. RNA interference can turn genes
off by blocking the messenger RNA that express them. New forms of gene
therapy are now able to place new genetic information in the right place on
the right chromosome. We can create or block enzymes, the work horses of
biology. We are reverse-engineering — and gaining the means to reprogram —
the information processes underlying disease and aging, and this process is
accelerating, doubling every year. If we think linearly, then the idea of
turning off all disease and aging processes appears far off into the future
just as the genome project did in 1990. On the other hand, if we factor in
the doubling of the power of these technologies each year, the prospect of
radical life extension is only a couple of decades away.
In addition to reprogramming biology, we will be able to go substantially
beyond biology with nanotechnology in the form of computerized nanobots in
the bloodstream. If the idea of programmable devices the size of blood cells
performing therapeutic functions in the bloodstream sounds like far off
science fiction, I would point out that we are doing this already in
animals. One scientist cured type I diabetes in rats with blood cell sized
devices containing 7 nanometer pores that let insulin out in a controlled
fashion and that block antibodies. If we factor in the exponential advance
of computation and communication (price-performance multiplying by a factor
of a billion in 25 years while at the same time shrinking in size by a
factor of thousands), these scenarios are highly realistic.
The apparent dangers are not real while unapparent dangers are real. The
apparent dangers are that a dramatic reduction in the death rate will create
over population and thereby strain energy and other resources while
exacerbating environmental degradation. However we only need to capture 1
percent of 1 percent of the sunlight to meet all of our energy needs (3
percent of 1 percent by 2025) and nanoengineered solar panels and fuel cells
will be able to do this, thereby meeting all of our energy needs in the late
2020s with clean and renewable methods. Molecular nanoassembly devices will
be able to manufacture a wide range of products, just about everything we
need, with inexpensive tabletop devices. The power and price-performance of
these systems will double each year, much faster than the doubling rate of
the biological population. As a result, poverty and pollution will decline
and ultimately vanish despite growth of the biological population.
There are real downsides, however, and this is not a utopian vision. We have
a new existential threat today in the potential of a bioterrorist to
engineer a new biological virus. We actually do have the knowledge to combat
this problem (for example, new vaccine technologies and RNA interference
which has been shown capable of destroying arbitrary biological viruses),
but it will be a race. We will have similar issues with the feasibility of
self-replicating nanotechnology in the late 2020s. Containing these perils
while we harvest the promise is arguably the most important issue we face.
Some people see these prospects as dangerous because they threaten their
view of what it means to be human. There is a fundamental philosophical
divide here. In my view, it is not our limitations that define our humanity.
Rather, we are the species that seeks and succeeds in going beyond our
limitations.January 20, 2006 at 11:16 am #9917
I’m a big fan of Ray Kurzweil – his book called ‘Age of The Spiritual Machines’ really got me thinking about biological evolution as well as our current technological evolution. I’m also a bit of a sucker for rampant optimism. I find our age facinating we really do live in the Information Age where all our scientific knowledge doubles every year – today we have more scientists doing research than all of our past history put together.
However I’m not such an optimist as Kurzweil and I can plainly see that although scientific knowledge increses exponentialy, our own intelect stays relatively still! By 2020 we’ll have domesticated primates (also known as humans) playing with very complicated (and somewhat dangerous) toys. As primates we have certain drives that makes us do stupid things, one of these is getting stuck on beliefs (which I discussed in the “Religion: The Root of All Evil??” post) –
The other, perhaps most dangerous drive is our drive to hoard! This includes hoarding land, money, food, energy (oil), people’s trust etc. This hoarding reflex is dangerous because when activated it is far more powerfull than our drive to help our fellow man – in fact peoples lives matter very little and are pretty expendable if you have a chance to hoard some oil or land.
We think of ourselves as ‘modern man’ – we see all the amazing things that we have created all around us, this makes us forget about our primate nature – whether we like it or not, we are still animals with simple animalistic drives, and an exeptional ability to create tools to achieve the aims of those drives.
Lets say that Kurzweil’s prediction comes true, unless we resolve our primitive nature most people will not benefit from these advances in science – and here comes the surprising punch-line – I believe that spiritual technology (such as Taoist Alchemy, Hermetic Magick etc) does just that! So if we are truly to progress and evolve in a balanced and effective way, we have to adopt spiritual technology as our main mode of personal development. Can you imagine spiritualy evolved people using these amazing tools for the betterment of all living things? (damn! – there is that optimistic streak again)
– The Pope of Blind Ranting –January 21, 2006 at 10:01 am #9919
Right on, Pope. I will join your Holy Crusade for spiritual techology. Let’s just keep it heart-centered, the inner point of balance and knowing that cannot be manipulated.
-foot soldier in your crusadeJanuary 21, 2006 at 1:41 pm #9921
Amen … me too.
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