Now after six million years of evolution, where do we go next? How will evolution, our newly arrived intellect, our primal drives and the powerful technologies we continually create, change us?
Our current situation is unlike anything nature has seen before because we are not simply a by-product of evolution, we are ourselves now an agent of evolution. We are this animal, filled with ancient emotions and needs, amplified by our intellects and a conscious mind, embarking on a new century where we are creating fresh tools and technologies so rapidly that we are struggling to keep pace with the very changes we are bringing to the table.
Where will this lead? Will we develop new brain modules, new appendages, revamped capabilities just as we have over the past six million years? Absolutely, but probably not in the way we suspect. It appears, if we look closely, that the DNA that has been such a perfect ally in the evolution of life, may itself be in for a revamping. Evolution may be prowling for a new partner. And the partner may be us, or at least the technologies we make possible.
The irony is that it takes a being like us, a human being, to bring about change this fundamental. The job requires an amalgamation of high intelligence and emotion, conscious intent, primal drives and great quantities of knowledge made possible by minds that can communicate in highly complex ways. If you pulled any one of these out, the future, at least one involving intelligent, conscious creatures like us, would fall apart. It takes not just cleverness, but passion, sometimes fear, fired by focused intention, to create and invent. Without this combination there would be no technologies, no wheels or steam engines or nuclear bombs or computers. And there would be nothing like the world we live in today. At best we would still be huddled in the black African night, eking out whatever existence the predators waiting in the darkness around us would allow. Not even fire would be our friend.
But the traits that have shaped us into the human beings we are have endowed us with strange abilities, and they are hurtling us into a future radically unlike the past out of which we have emerged. And that future will be profoundly different from anything most of us can imagine.
Take the thinking of Hans Moravec as an object lesson. Moravec is a highly respected robotics scientist at Carnegie Mellon University. In the late 1980s, he quietly passed his spare time writing a book that predicted the end of the human race. The book, entitled Mind Children, didn’t predict that we would destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons or rampant, self-inflicted diseases, or undo the species with self-replicating nanotechnology. Instead, Moravec, who had an abiding and life-long fascination with intelligent machines, predicted we would invent ourselves out of existence, and robots would be the technology of choice.
In a subsequent book (Robot, Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind) Moravec explained that this transformation would unfold one technological generation at a time, and, because of the blistering rate of change today, would pretty much run its course by the middle of the 21st century. We would manage this by boosting robots up the evolutionary ladder, roughly in decade-long increments, making them smarter, more mobile, more like us. First they would be as intelligent as insects or a simple guppy (we are about there right now), then lab rats, then monkeys and chimps until, finally one day, the machines would become more adept and adaptive than their makers. That, of course, would quickly raise the question: “Now who is in charge?” Would Homo sapiens, after some 200,000 years living on top of the planet’s food chain, no longer rule the roost? Would we, in the cramped space of this evolutionary ellipsis, find ourselves playing Neanderthal to technologies that had become, like us, self-aware—the first conscious tools built by a conscious toolmaking creature?
The unavoidable answer would be, yes. Evolution will have found through us a new way to make a new creature; one that could forsake its ladders of DNA and the fragile, carbon-based biology that nature had been using for nearly four million millennia to manage the job.
The “end” would not come in the form of a Terminator style invasion, it would simply unfold in the natural course of evolutionary events where one species, better adapted to its environment replaces another that is no longer very fit to continue. Except the new species wouldn’t be cobbled out of DNA, it would be fashioned from silicon, alloy, and who knows what else, invented by us. But once successfully invented, we wouldn’t be necessary any more.
Whether events will play out like this or not remains to be seen. But Moravec’s scenario makes a point—the world and the life upon it changes, and simply because we are the agents of change, doesn’t mean we won’t be affected by it.
It is strange to think of the invention of machines, even robotic ones, as having anything to do with Darwin’s natural selection. We usually regard evolution as biological—a world of cells, DNA and “living” creatures. And we think of our machines as unalive, unintelligent and shifted by economic forces more than natural ones. But it isn’t written anywhere that evolution has to be constrained by what we traditionally think of as biology. In fact each day the lines between biology and technology, humans and the machines we create are blurring. We are already part and parcel of our technology.
Since the day Homo habilis whacked his first flint knife out of flakes of flint, it has been difficult to know whether we invented our tools or our tools invented us. The world economy would crash if its computer systems failed. We can’t live without laptops, palmtops, cell phones or iPods, which grow continually smaller and more powerful. We regularly engineer genes, despite the raging debates over stem cell therapy. A human being will very likely be cloned within the next five years. We now have computer processors working at the nano (molecular) level and microelectromechanical machines (MEMS) that operate at cellular dimensions. Already electronic prosthetics make direct connections with human nerves, and electronic brain implants for Parkinson’s disease and weak hearts are common place. Scientists are even experimenting with electronic, implantable eyes. New clothing weaves digital technologies into their fiber and brings them a step closer to being a part of us. The military are working on “battlesuits” that will fit like gloves, a kind of second skin and amplify a soldier’s senses, strength and ability to communicate, even triangulate the direction of a bullet headed his or her way.
What next? Speech, writing and art enabled us to share inner feelings in new and powerful ways. But it takes months or years to learn a new language or how to play the piano or master the art of engineering bridges and buildings. Will new technologies that accelerate communication (virtual reality, telepresence, digital implants, nanotechnology) create new ways to communicate that can by-pass speech? Will we someday communicate by a kind of digital telepathy, downloading information, experiences, skills, even emotions the way we download a file from the Internet to our laptop? Will we become machines, or will machines become more powerful versions of us? And if any of this comes to pass, what ethical issues do we face? At what point to do we stop being human?
Lynn Margulis, probably the world’s leading microbiologist, has argued that this blurring of technology and biology isn’t really all that new. She has observed1 that the shells of clams and snails are a kind of technology dressed in biological clothing. Is there really that much difference between the vast skyscrapers we build or the malls in which we shop, even the cars we drive around, and the hull of a seed? Seeds and clam shells, which are not alive, hold in them a little bit of water and carbon and DNA, ready to replicate when the time is right, yet we don’t distinguish them from the life they hold. Why should it be any different with office buildings, hospitals and space shuttles?
Put another way, we may make a distinction between living things and the tools those things happen to create, but nature does not. The processes of evolution simply witness new adaptations and preserve those that perform better than others. That would make Homo habilis’s first flint knife a form of biology as sure as a clamshell, one that set our ancestors on a fresh evolutionary path just as if their DNA had been tweaked to create a new, physical mutation, say an opposable thumb or a big toe.
Even if these technological adaptations were outside what we might consider normal biological bounds, the effect was just as profound, and far more rapid. In an evolutionary snap, that first flint knife changed what we ate and how we interacted with the world and one another. It enhanced our chances of survival. It accelerated our brain growth which in turn allowed us to create still more tools which led to yet bigger brains. And on we went, continually and with increasing speed and sophistication, fashioning progressively more complex technologies right up to the genetic techniques that enable us to fiddle with the self-same ribbons of our chromosomes that made the brains that conceived tools in the first place. If this is true, all of our technologies are an extension of us, and each human invention is really another expression of biological evolution.
Moravec and Margulis aren’t alone in asking questions that force us to bend our traditional thinking about evolution. Scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil has, like Moravec, pointed out that the rate of technological change is increasing at an exponential rate. Also like Moravec, he foresees machines as intelligent as we are evolving by mid century. Unlike Moravec he doesn’t necessarily believe they will arrive in the form of robots.
Initially Kurzweil sees us reengineering ourselves genetically so that we will live longer and healthier lives than the DNA we were born with might normally allow. We will first rejigger genes to reduce disease, grow replacement organs, and generally postpone many of the ravages of old age. This, he says, will get us to a time late in the 2020s when we can create molecule-sized nanomachines that we will program to tackle jobs our DNA never evolved naturally to undertake.
Once these advances are in place we will not simply slow aging, but reverse it, cleaning up and rebuilding our bodies molecule by molecule. We will also use them to amplify our intelligence; nestling them among the billions of neurons that already exist inside our brains. Our memories will improve; we will create entirely new, virtual experiences, on command, and take human imagination to levels our currently unenhanced brains can’t begin to conceive.2 In time (but pretty quickly) we will reverse engineer the human brain into a vastly more powerful, digital version.
This view of the futures isn’t fundamentally different from Moravec’s brain-to-robot download, except it is more gradual. Either way we will have melded with our technology if, in fact, those barriers ever really existed in the first place, and in the end, erase the lines between bits, bytes, neurons and atoms.
Or looked at another way, we will have evolved into another species. We will no longer be Homo sapiens, but Cyber sapiens—a creature part digital and part biological that will have placed more distance between its DNA and the destinies they force upon us than any other animal. And we will have become a creature capable of steering its own evolution (“cyber” derives from the Greek word for a ship’s steersman or navigator—kybernetes). The world will face an entirely new state of affairs.
Why would we allow ourselves to be displaced? Because in the end, we won’t really have a choice. Our own inventiveness has already unhinged our environment so thoroughly that we are struggling to keep up. In a supreme irony we have created a world fundamentally different from the one into which we originally emerged. A planet with six and a half billion creatures on it, traveling in flying machines every day by the millions, their minds roped together by satellites and fiber optic cable, rearranging molecules on the one hand and leveling continents of rain forest on the other, growing food and shipping it overnight by the trillions of tons—all of this is a far cry from the hunter-gatherer, nomadic life for which evolution had fashioned us 200,000 years ago.
So it seems the long habit of our inventiveness has placed us in a pickle. In the one-upmanship of evolution, our tools have rendered the world more complex and that complexity requires the invention of still more complex tools to help us keep it all under control. Our new tools enable us to adapt more rapidly, but one advance begs the creation of another, and each increasingly powerful suite of inventions shifts the world around us so powerfully that still more adaptation is required.
The only way to survive is to move faster, get smarter, change with the changes, and the best way to do that is to amplify ourselves eventually right out of our own DNA so we can survive the new environments—physical, emotional and mental—that we keep recreating.
Is all of this too implausible to consider? Will Homo sapiens really give way to Cyber sapiens that seamlessly integrate the molecular and digital worlds just as our ancestors merged the technological and biological worlds two million years ago? Evolution has presided over stranger things. It took billions of years before the switching and swapping of genes brought us into existence. Our particular brain then took 200,000 years to get us from running around in skins with stone weapons to the world we live in today. Evolution is all about the implausible. And the drive to survive is a relentless shaper of the seemingly impossible. We ourselves are the best proof.
If all of this should happen; if DNA itself goes the way of the dinosaur, what sort of creature will Cyber sapiens be? In some ways we can’t know the answer anymore than Homo erectus could imagine how his successors would someday create movies, invent computers and write symphonies. Our progeny, our “mind children,” will certainly be more intelligent with brains that are both massively parallel, like the current version we have, and unimaginably fast. But what of those primal drives that we carry inside our skulls, and those non-verbal, unconscious ways of communicating? What of laughter and crying and kissing? Will Cyber sapiens know a good joke when he hears one, or smile appreciatively at a fine line of poetry? Will he tousle the machine made hair of his offspring, hold the hand of the one he loves, kiss soulfully, wantonly and uncontrollably? Will there be a difference between the “brains” and behaviors of he and she? Will there even be a he and a she? And what of pheromones and body language and nervous giggles? Maybe they will have served their purpose and gone away. Will Cyber sapiens sleep, and if they do, will they dream? Will they connive and gossip, grow mad with jealousy, plot and murder? Will they carry with them a deep, if machine made, unconscious that is the dark matter of the human mind, or will all of those primeval secrets be revealed in the bright light cast by their newly minted brains?
We may face these questions sooner than we imagine. The future gathers speed every day.
I’d like to think the evolutionary innovations and legacies that have combined to make us so remarkable, and so human, won’t be left entirely behind as we march ahead. Perhaps they can’t be. After all, evolution does have a way of working with what is already there, and even after six million years of wrenching change, we still carry with us the echoes of our animal ancestors. Maybe the best of those echoes will remain. After all, as heavy as some baggage can be, preserving a few select pieces might be a good thing, even if we are freaks of nature.
1. This was during a conversation with Professor Margulis at her home in western Massachusetts.
2. Note: the current version of a creature can never comprehend the exerience of the creature that will follow because it does not yet have the evolved capacity (whatever it is) that will make that experience possible. We cannot accurately imagine what a digitally enhanced brain will conceive any more than Homo erectus could imagine our experience of the world.
© 2006 Chip Walter