The Next Generation

Joel Garreau
The Washington Post
April 25, 2002

During the Depression, sickly Steve Rogers lived in poverty with his widowed mother, who died overworking herself to provide for her son, leaving him to survive as a delivery boy.

Alarmed by the rise of Nazism, Rogers decided to join the military but was deemed "too frail." After he begged to be accepted, Rogers was tapped for Operation Rebirth, given a "secret serum" and subjected to a rain of "vita-rays," according to the Encyclopedia of Superheroes. The weakling was reborn as Captain America, a comic book figure who could lift over a quarter of a ton and run 30 mph, with reflexes 10 times as fast as normal.

Nowadays, his treatment would be called a biotech workup.

Orphaned newsboy Billy Batson became the grown-up Captain Marvel with powers that included gaining super strength by saying "Shazam!" He could leap great distances and repel bullets with his body. In today's terms, Billy Batson is somebody who's got hold of the exoskeleton suit with similar attributes the U.S. Army is currently developing at MIT for $50 million.

Throughout the cohort of yesterday's superheroes -- Wonder Woman, Spiderman, even The Shadow, who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men -- one sees the outlines of technologies that today either exist, or are now in engineering. The Green Lantern has a ring that can create any physical object out of little but his imagination and an energy source. (He has a nanotech assembler.) Superman has telescopic and X-ray vision. (Current military technology from Predators to cave pingers.)

In the 1930s and 1940s, the powers of these superheroes were fantasies. Today, we are entering a world in which such abilities are either yesterday's news or tomorrow's headlines. Nobody even blinks when Olympic committees worry about "gene doping" in the 2008 China games -- a biotechnology that today, in mice, produces creatures that are astonishing to look at. Some genetically engineered mice have had their muscle mass increased by as much as 300 percent.

What's more, the ability to create this magic is accelerating. In 1985 the human genome was thought of as a code that would resist cracking until 2010 or 2020. When the feat was completed last year for a fraction of the estimated price, it was no more surprising than was the ensuing cascade of cloned mice, cats, bunnies, pigs and cattle that followed the first cloned sheep. Who today is not braced for the first renegade human clone?

What will this mean? Will human nature itself change? Will we soon pass some point where we are so altered by our imaginations and inventions as to be unrecognizable to Shakespeare or the writers of the ancient Greek plays?

No one knows, but many are trying to imagine such a world. They describe our children and grandchildren as no longer really being like us. They call them trans-human, or post-human. They see our lives changing more dramatically in the next few decades than in most of recorded history. And who knows? Perhaps they are right.

After all, a few years ago who would have expected an American soldier on a mountain in Afghanistan to shine a little red light on a tank, confident that soon it would explode?

For all recorded history, we've been trying to transcend human nature: Think of Socratic reasoning, Buddhist enlightenment, Catholic sainthood or Marxists' "New Man." Now that it's becoming possible, some wonder if it's such a good idea after all.

But it is becoming possible.

Shazam!

Life in the Fast Lane

Even change has changed. It's been 32 years since Alvin and Heidi Toffler published "Future Shock," warning that the pace of change was increasing faster than people could handle it.

Believe it or not: Back then, many readers viewed as outrageously radical the Tofflers' projections that few Americans would have the same career with the same company all their lives. Equally preposterous, some believed, were their notions about the decline of the nuclear family, multiplication of youth tribes such as surfers, and computers in the classroom -- much less VCRs and multiplex cinemas.

And that was when the curve was just beginning to take off.

Now "frankenfoods" are common enough to be controversial, from Flavr-Savr tomatoes to corn that creates its own pesticide. Genetically engineered bacteria that mass-produce insulin have long been accepted. Transplanting pieces of pigs and monkeys into humans is old news -- Jesse Helms just had a 10-year-old pig valve in his heart replaced. Laser eye surgery has become so unremarkable you can find it in the shopping mall. Soon we may not find it startling to order "prescription bananas" grown to deliver specific medicines, or plants that produce plastics without using oil reserves, or antibodies that attack cocaine in the body and are used to control addiction.

"Life in 2015 will be revolutionized by the growing effect of technology across all dimensions of life: social, economic, political, and personal," a recent Rand National Defense Research Institute report for the National Intelligence Council says. "The results could be astonishing." First up: the ability to "manipulate, improve, and control living organisms (including ourselves)."

Not only is research underway to "create new, free-living organisms," but work is underway to " 'improve' the human species . . . These will be very controversial developments -- among the most controversial in the entire history of mankind," the National Intelligence Council report says.

A recent Science magazine cover story was titled "Bodybuilding: The Bionic Human." There were articles about growing hearts, livers, blood, skin, bones, veins, tendons, and bladders from scratch, and on regenerating injured spinal cord. There was a section on direct nerve-to-computer connections merging man and machine in ways that allow people to control artificial limbs with their brains. Hang in there Christopher Reeve, we're headed your way. You may indeed become Superman yet.

Computerized cochlear implants wired to nerve fibers today allow the profoundly deaf to hear, leading to the next generation of electrode implants to the brainstem. Then there are the electrode arrays that activate the retina, optic nerve, or even the visual cortex itself, offering hope for the blind to see. These come on the heels of recent accomplishments in transplanting pig neurons into humans with Parkinson's disease, and hand and larynx transplants. Antidotes to aging are becoming big business. George Roth, chief of molecular physiology and genetics at the National Institute on Aging, counts some 40 recent scientist-run start-ups seeking to reverse aging. Not stop aging, but reverse it. Most of these companies are looking for life-extending genes.

How far can this go? S. Jay Olshansky, a biodemographer at the University of Illinois, Chicago, told Science that "anything past 130 is ridiculous." But William Haseltine of Human Genome Sciences in Rockville thinks stem cells will ultimately prove the route to virtual immortality, predicting that it will one day be possible to "reseed the body with our own cells that are made more potent and younger, so we can repopulate the body." Already, life expectancy in the developed world is increasing by more than a quarter of a year every year. When life expectancy starts increasing by a full year every year, something like immortality is at hand, at least for those who can afford it.

What shakes our human nature about all this is not just how exotic it is. It's how fast it's coming. It makes the last 20 years a guide not to the next 20 years but at best the next eight. Like the miracle of compound interest, which turns pennies into millions of dollars on a geometric curve over time, several areas of technological upheaval are coming together and reinforcing each other at a pace that is rapidly doubling and redoubling, within our lifetimes.

People old enough to have teenagers probably remember a day when computers and lasers were so exotic as to be unimaginable for personal use. Today you can buy a nice laser/computer combination for 20 bucks. It's called a portable CD player.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency arguably thinks and funds farther into the future than any other organization in Washington. Its predecessor organization was changing your life almost 40 years ago by funding what would become the Internet. DARPA now finds it interesting to fund work on a lens with remarkable powers not unlike those of the eyes of a fish or an eagle, or figuring out how the code from neural cells, tissue and brain could be read directly, thus allowing communications by the brain to control a distant machine. Perhaps in space. Those are the sorts of thing DARPA talks about openly on its Web site.

The NIC report notes: "The low cost and wide availability of basic genomic equipment and know-how will likely allow practically any country, small business, or even individual to participate in genetic engineering."

And: "The pace and scope of such change could in turn have profound effects on the economy, society, and politics of most countries. Many people feel that their culture's continued vitality and possibly even long-term existence may be threatened by new ways of living brought about by technology.

"The revolutionary effects of biotechnology may be the most startling. Collective breakthroughs should improve both the quality and length of human life. . . . There will be no turning back, however, since some societies will avail themselves of the revolution, and globalization will thus change the environment in which each society lives. The world is in for significant change."

The question is whether we are creating alterations to ourselves that will fundamentally change human nature.

In his new book "Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution," Francis Fukuyama of Johns Hopkins University says: "The people in 'Brave New World' may be healthy and happy, but they have ceased to be human beings."

He explains: "The most significant threat posed by contemporary biotechnology is the possibility that it will alter human nature and thereby move us into a 'posthuman' stage of history. This is important . . . because human nature exists, is a meaningful concept, and has provided a stable continuity to our experience as a species. It is, conjointly with religion, what defines our most basic values. Human nature shapes and constrains the possible kinds of political regimes, so a technology powerful enough to reshape what we are will have possibly malign consequences for liberal democracy and the nature of politics itself."

He is not alone in thinking that we might be heading toward irrevocable changing of our species.

What will parents do when offered something that will increase their child's SAT scores by 200 points?

What will athletes do when they are encouraged by extreme big-buck leagues to have medical pit crews?

What will fat people do when offered an implant that will monitor and alter their metabolism?

What will the military do when it can overcome the need to sleep?

What will the aging do when offered memory enhancers?

What will baby boomers do when it becomes obvious that Botox and Viagra are just the tip of the iceberg for the pharmagenetic sex-appeal industry?

Suppose technology allows us to transcend seemingly impossible barriers, not only for ourselves but exponentially for our children? What price does trans-human wisdom and power demand?

Shazam!

No Limits

There doesn't seem to be much standing in the way of this 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. "The remaining human future is 25 years or 50 years," says Max More, president of the Extropy Institute, a pioneering explorer of the acceleration of technology and trans-humanism.

You can get an argument about whether this inevitable.

Biotech critic Fukuyama in his book 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. "Nobody thinks they are doing anything wrong," says Ray Kurzweil, winner of the National Medal of Technology and author of the forthcoming "The Singularity Is Near." "It's just one step at a time."

You can also find disagreement about whether the biological revolution or the computer revolution first will lead us to becoming trans-humans.

This weekend in Silicon Valley, Kurzweil is scheduled to debate Gregory Stock, author of "Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future," and director of the UCLA Program on Medicine, Technology and Society. Stock foresees "widespread reworking of human biology via genetic engineering -- neither governments nor religious groups will be able to stop this" in the next few decades, says Christine Petersen, president of the Foresight Institute running the program. "Greg sees computer technology as increasingly intelligent, but by and large not integrated with the human body.

"Kurzweil agrees with Stock that the biogenetic changes he foresees will take place, but believes that we will also see profound integration of our biological systems with nonbiological intelligence," enabling routine integration of machines and the brain by 2030. By 2040, the nonbiological portion will be far more powerful than the biological portion: We will have become cyborgs, Kurzweil argues.

What none of these authors is disputing is the notion that "as exponential growth continues to accelerate into the first half of the twenty-first century," as Kurzweil puts it, "it will appear to explode into infinity, at least from the limited and linear perspective of contemporary humans," resulting in "technological change so rapid and so profound that it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history."

Imagine a world some decades away in which a significant chunk of the population is beyond human because it has been genetically altered. It's not an unthinkable step beyond the prenatal testing that we've already been using for decades to select our children's genes by aborting the fetuses that do not carry the characteristics or gender we want.

The towering question is whether this is good or bad.

In the near term, the world could divide up into three kinds of humans: the Enhanced, who embrace these opportunities, the Naturals, who have the technology available but who, like today's vegetarians, choose not to indulge for moral or aesthetic reasons, and the Rest -- those who lag behind, envying or despising these 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 differences quaintly obsolete.

There are three scenarios, says Peter Schwartz, chairman of the scenario planning firm Global Business Network.

In the first, the secrets of human consciousness and the human brain elude us, and change is stately. In the second, incremental change continues to accelerate, aging is reversed, the revolution has occurred, and we are just trying to deal with the consequences. In the third, 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 whichever case, what we're talking about here is transcendence -- becoming separate from or going beyond the gritty world we've always known.

The Extropy Institute's Max More says that his interest in the subject started "with a recognition of the undesirable limitations of human nature. And an understanding that science and technology were essential keys to overcoming human nature's confines."

His journey started when "I saw very clearly how limited are human beings in their wisdom, in their intellectual and emotional development, and in their sensory and physical capabilities," he says in a Web conversation with Kurzweil.

"After an early-teens interest in what I'll loosely call (with mild embarrassment) 'psychic stuff,' as I came to learn more science and critical thinking, I ceased to give any credence to psychic phenomena, as well as to any traditional religious views. With these paths to any form of transcendence closed, I realized that transhumanity (as I began to think of it) would only be achieved through science and technology steered by human values."

Particularly significant to him was the period he spent teaching evolution to college students. It led him to "resonate to Nietzsche's 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.' A bridge, not a goal. That nicely summarizes a transhumanist perspective."

In a Web discussion on Edge.com, Kurzweil says: "To me that is what human civilization is all about. 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 fond 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."

And, Kurzweil says:

"What is unique about human beings is our ability to create abstract models and to use these mental models to understand the world and do something about it. . . . This ability to scale up the power of our own civilization is what's unique about human beings."

But do we want to be evolving human nature beyond what we've known for millennia?

Shazam!

For further information, much of the Defense Advanced Research Planning Agency site is useful. See especially www.darpa.mil/dso. See also a conversation between John Brockman and Ray Kurzweil at the Edge site, www.edge.org/3rd_culture/kurzweil_singularity/kurzweil_singularity_index.html. Kurzweil's site is www.KurweilAI.net and Max More's site is www.extropy.org. Their conversation is at www.kurzweilai.net/meme/frame.html?main=/articles/art0408.html?m%3D1. A debate between Francis Fukuyama and Gregory Stock is at http://reason.com/debate/eh-debate1.shtml

© 2002 The Washington Post Company


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