Technology, our Achilles Heal? Now Designer Babies? UK following China.
The good, the bad, and the ugly.
Technology. It’s helped us. It’s hurt us. But could it bring us to our knees within decades?
Not long ago, prominent cosmologist and physicist Stephen Hawking, announced the largest effort to date to discover other intelligent life in the universe, a $100-million search of the heavens over the next 10 years backed by Silicon Valley Russian billionaire, Yuri Milner.
That news begs more than a few introspective questions about ourselves as intelligent beings while we continue to delve into the thickening of our 21 century technological renaissance with little or no boundaries. The dominant question is whether we have actually evolved enough intelligence to ensure our own survival and that of the planet in the face of today’s overwhelming self-induced challenges.
What we continue to put ourselves through as a species, and put the earth through as the result of our technologies, is an increasingly gray area, and by most accounts looking worse, not better. Unless we can get on top of some of the technologies we’ve invented, it will be completely irrelevant if we find intelligent life out there somewhere.
So as scientists embark on this new search, it is worth considering what the noted Carl Sagan, and other scientists, postulated a number of years ago concerning the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. That is, in trying to calculate the odds of finding evidence of other intelligent life in the cosmos, among the trillions upon trillions upon trillions of stars, one has to account for a certain percentage of civilizations falling victim to their own technologies, and and likely doing so within a hundred years of discovering the technologies needed to send their first signals into space. We don’t know yet if that is to become our legacy.
We don’t know yet if we have gambled away our future.
It is food for thought as a the number of self-induced, potential threats, not the least of which is global warming — climate change — is most definitely on the increase.
Without a doubt we truly are clever beings and our technologies are quite amazing. But the debate is open as to whether we have the where-with-all to forecast, vet or control that which we cleverly invent.
Less than a year ago, Professor Hawking also put forth, along with technology entrepreneur Elon Musk of SpaceX, Telsa Motors and Solar City, and other scientists and technologists, a stark warning that Artificial Intelligence is potentially more dangerous than nuclear weapons and could well spell the end of mankind in the coming decades. There is no question the chase is on to make machines that will surpass our own smarts, and likely it won’t slow down.
We’ve seen it, we’ve felt it, over and over. Splitting the atom came back to bite us. As did pesticides, all manor of weapons, antibiotics, mono-crop agriculture, missile technology, not to mention our current and future total infra-structure dependence on a flawed Internet. That’s just to mention a few. Technologies bloom with no means to separate the flowers from the poisonous thorns. We currently we have no way to forecast, to vet, to control that which we invent. For better or worse we are in age of a technology free-for-all, where it seems anything goes.
Perhaps one of our most troubling, and consequential, aspects of our technological cleverness is our new-found ability to manipulate the essence of life in general, and us in particular. Last April, a Chinese team jumped the ethical boundaries established by the majority of experts and scientists in the West, completing, then published results of an experiment in which they edited the genes of human embryos. China, not surprisingly, is putting hundreds of billions of dollars toward biomedical research.
Not long after, news came out that The Center for Neuroengineering at Duke University has been demonstrating animal mind-melds with monkeys and rats using electrodes and chips to form networked brains with the idea that we will soon be able to network the neurons in human beings to form collective decisions and real-time, brain to machine to brain, networking.
So, the starting gun has sounded in the imminent race for humans to design custom babies, custom humans, and to not only alter our bodies, but our minds as well. Given humanity’s past history, and its penchant for technology, it would be foolish to think otherwise. A race to mold our species into our own idea of the perfect human being is underway, and frankly, our ideas and foresight about what is good for the earth, and good for us, just haven’t been the best.
But when was the last time we didn’t pursue and exploit a technology regardless of our ignorance of the threat lurking behind unforeseen consequences. Human beings’ propensity to be blind-sided by the unexpected negative aspects of the technologies we create could easily be called legendary. Who’d have predicted how so many of our technologies would come back and bite us. We haven’t done so well looking ahead.
There’s no technology once discovered that humans haven’t tried to utilize, whether to make better our lives, to profit from, or to kill with. For many, lives are better, yet we continue to invent things which come back at us in nasty, and hard, or impossible to fix, ways. Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.
We hardly consider that which we’ve proved, time and again: we simply are not mature enough — scientifically morally, or ethically — to start messing with certain technologies. But we keep opening Pandora’s Box, so to speak, without a means to slow down, to vet, to forecast the new technologies we discover.
So now we think we can improve on the most amazing and mysterious technology our world has ever known. That would be you and me, the human being, our offspring, our future. In some ways, it’s akin to handing a four-year-old some paint, a brush and a Picasso painting with the thought that he or she could make improvements. As far as we have come, we still don’t have much clue as to what creates life, what makes awareness, where we came from or where we are headed, and why.
We are not accustomed to thinking of ourselves as technology, and certainly not the most incredible one on Earth. But we rarely consider the thousands upon thousand of systems and processes that go on inside us every minute of every day, all of it happening behind the scenes, beyond our awareness. We don’t have to pay attention to them much because they are self-monitoring and self-regulating.
We only understand a small portion of this technology that is us, that is somehow programmed into us. And we don’t have to lift a finger. You get a cut, the wound heals. Something in your lungs, you automatically cough. The blinking of your eyelids happens all day long, automatically, without your awareness. You catch a bug, your body heats up to battle it. The truth is we are not close to understand the whole system that is us. We only understand pieces of it here and there.
To get back to the strides in Artificial Intelligence we are attaining: if history tells us anything, they will most likely come back to haunt us. But, however many millions of lines of code we put together, whatever AI we end up crafting over the next several decades, what we achieve could never begin to touch the complexity of what is us.
To try to grasp the scope, and breadth, of what we are playing with, the complexity of this technology that we are, a good place to begin is to peer at the galaxies, and realize there’s about 170 billion of them that we know of, , then secondly, realize each of them contain hundreds of billions of stars. Take the number 1, put 24 zeros behind it and it is still all but impossible for us to visualize that many stars.
Now, take the human body, 100 percent made of atoms that were born inside these and past stars. As many stars as there are, your body contains more atoms than that! More atoms then grains of sand on all the beaches of the world. And if you were to shrink down to their level, you would also find that, relatively speaking, the distances between these atoms is not unlike the distances between the stars. Mostly empty space.
You could take a bag full of those exact same atoms that make you, and shake it for two eternities, but you’d still never come up with you. Somehow instructions come into the mix.
Instructions, making atoms bond together into molecules, then more instructions to bind the molecules into a collage of trillions of cells, each cell with a specific purpose, working together, controlled automatically in the background by electricity in the brain which in itself these cells created. And somehow, in this collage that is you, you have a unique consciousness.
It is the way these trillions of atoms have congregated, have collected, interact, that gives us life and awareness. We certainly don’t know how or why we came into being, but essentially you are, we are, a technology far beyond our current understanding: the greatest technology on Earth!
It doesn’t matter in this discussion how star stuff eventually became you, whether divine plan or accident of the universe. What matters is that we recognize how incredible it is that these trillions and trillions of atoms somehow came together to give you awareness, to bring you into being, and how incredible the being next to you is. What matters is that we give more respect to the human being, our uniqueness, and that of all life on this planet, and protect it.
Just as difficult to understand is why and how we can be the most amazing technology on this earth, and at the same time have evolved into being perhaps the Earth’s and our own biggest threat.
While we chase technology in the name of progress, at this stage, with our science and moral evolution not quite up to the task, we might be wise to try to reign in and fix our current technological problems before we embark on manipulating human DNA, and planting networking electrodes in our brains, both of which have every chance to do great harm in the long run to the greatest technology on earth — us, our loved ones, our offspring.
(Footnote: 9.18.2015 Now UK scientist seek permission to genetically modify human embryos)