Partial transcript of an interview with journalist Joel GarreauMP3 author of Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies—and What It Means to Be Human from Changesurfer Radio

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You can see 4 technologies that I call the GRIN technologies: Genetics, Robotics, Information technology and Nanotechnology, and all of them are following a curve of exponential change.

You're seeing a curve that goes straight up. The most obvious example of this is in the information technologies with what the techies call Moore's Law. That's named after Gordon Moore, one of the three founders of Intel... He observed back in 1965 that since the chip was invented 6 years previous, the number of transistors on a chip was doubling every 12 months. His very bold prophesy was that it would continue for the next 10 years. As a matter of fact what you're seeing is the doubling of information power that you can buy for a dollar doubling every 18 months since 1959, and you've never seen a curve of change like that in all of human history. We're now up to something like the 28th doubling. Doubling is an amazing thing, it means that each step is as tall as all the previous steps put together. So 27 doublings means an increase of like 100 million times. Not only are you seeing that in information technology, this is allowing us to do extraordinary things in other fields.

The advances in information technology is now causing an exponential increase in genetic technology and the same thing is true of robotics... and nanotechnology which is this exploding field of the very very small, putting things together one molecule or one atom at a time.

The bottom line to all this is all of these technologies are causing us to arrive at a hinge in history... Increasingly these exponentially advancing technologies are aimed inward at modifiying our minds, memories, metabolisms, personalities, progeny and possibly our immortal souls... When you start talking about changing what it means to be human you're looking at one of the great profound changes in human history.

In our lifetime you're looking at a profound change in what it means to be human, and this is a real, no kidding scenario... This is the real nuts and bolts of what is in the engineering lab right now that can change our minds and memories and metabolisms and personalities. Trying to figure out where this is all going to take us on this magic ride I started talking to people who had been thinking a great deal about this... and they break down basically into three camps.

 

Heaven

The first camp... the Heaven Scenario I call it, the poster child is Ray Kurzweil. What makes him notorious is his books. In his books he is laying out a future that is essentially indistinguishable from the christian version of heaven. He is looking at this curve of technological change and he's saying that this is going to be driving humans affairs and that it's all going to be good. That's the heaven scenario, and it's a scenario to be taken seriously... He's talking about us becoming something like god-like, and he's not kidding, and this is a serious guy, he's not a new-age fruitcake, he's a serious technologist.

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    Hell

    Then there is the Hell Scenario. The hell scenario is eeriely similar to the heaven scenario. It starts with the same premises. It observes that we have this curve of technological change and that it's increasing exponentially... It also basically assumes that technology drives history, just like the heaven scenario does, but in this case it's the mirror image of the heaven scenario. If the heaven scenario imagines a curve of human history that smoothly goes straight up, the hell scenario is one in which people look at this increasing technology and see a curve that goes straight down, and they don't mess around when they're talking about going straight down. The optimistic view of some of these hell scenario people... is that we simply wipe out the human race in the next 25 years or so. The pessimistic scenaro... is that we don't just wipe out the entire human race but that we wipe out the entire biosphere, and leave this planet just a barren lump.

    My poster boy for that scenario is Bill Joy

    The reason he's so pessimistic is that, he says, "look at these GRIN techologies... each one of those has the potential for incredible evil... these are knowledgle-enabled weapons... if we keep on spreading the knowledge of how this works around, he likens it to giving everybody on the planet an atomic bomb... what are the odds that a few of them would go off in the hands of some nut?" He views it as incontrovertible that the answer is, of course, something like this would happen. So he is deeply concerned about the future of the planet... and there are other people like him...

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    Prevail

    The Prevail Scenario is profoundly different from both the heaven or hell scenario in that it doesn't think that human culture and values is necessarily inextriably tied to this curve of technological change. It doesn't see any smooth curves to human history. It propounds that history as we've known it has been a series of pick-ups and reversals and loops and stops, and that that's not likely to change... I think it's a profoundly human instinct to throw the curve a curve.

    My poster child for the prevail scenario is Jaron Lanier.

    He says where these heaven and hell guys go wrong is that the way they measure change is by how many transistors you can fit on the head of a pin. He says that's a profoundly anti-humane version of viewing progress. It's not about technology and it's not about individuals, to Jaron the benchmark of the prevail scenario will be how many humans we can connect up. He's looking for a metric that involves the human spirit and the human will to go on, and he's much more interested in connecting humans than in connecting up technology, and that's his measure of how we will prevail, and that's the one that is not technological determinism...

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  • The big difference with prevail is you'll see humans beginning to control their own future. It won't be technology in charge, it'll be humans in charge. If you start seeing bottom-up solutions, kind of like co-evolution. For example, back in the 1500s and 1600s they had all sorts of intractable problems that they were facing and suddenly the printing press came and that allowed us to co-evolve new solutions like democracy and world trade and all sorts of brand new innovations that allowed solutions to problems that were beyond the scope of any one person or nation... Do we see new solutions? It's child's play to say that we're looking at an increase in problems.

    The critical question is are we seeing an increase in solutions, especially for hundreds of millions of people who are newly connected in ways that weren't possible even a generation before who are coming up with brand new solutions that we could never imagine?