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February 13, 2005
Tigers of the future
A reader pointed me to this article, We are the final frontier, where several intellectuals moot the concpets of impending artificial intelligence, the omnipresence of genetic engineering and the rise of post-human collective minds. Since I was about 18 or so I have adhered to the line of thought that our technological civilization is going to hit an "inflection point" in this century. We are either going to make the "leap" toward some "higher state" through a confluence of mechanical and genetic engineering, or we are going to "regress" back to a less technologically oriented civilization because of cultural malfunctions or constraints.
In the latter scenario I am not positing simple resource exhaustion in the conventional environmentalist apocalypse paradigm, rather, I believe that our mental "hardware" which serves as the substrate for the emergent superstructures of our social systems is fast becoming highly inappropriate for the development arc that is, and will be, enabled by information technology. I suspect that the rise of nihilistic global terrorist organizations emerging out of developing nations is only a foretaste of the coming psycho-social chaos. We need to smash the Dunbar limit and radically upgrade our mental hardwire and rewrite the software so that we are suitabley outfitted for an information age. As it is, we are a retrofit of paleolithic hunter-gatherers stumbling our way through a digital epoch.
I don't think that there is a strong likelihood that laws against "thinking machines" or "genetic abominations" are going to halt the progression toward some form of technological singularity. What will halt the inevitable is a collapse of the technological infrastructure of our civilization via maladaptation induced chaos. Either way, we might be the last full generation of moderns....
I say we ride the tigers, lest they consume us.
Addendum: I want to make one thing clear, and this is aimed partly at you Michael, I am not espousing transhumanism as a panacea for all the world's ills, rather, I think it is simply one of two paths that the human race must choose in the next century. I do not think that modern liberal democracy is stable in the long run, the long run being 2-3 generations. A major "die off" will rid of us of the problems associated with modernity, but it will also likely prevent us from supporting a technological-scientific civilization, which I believe is a necessary condition for liberal democracy. The other option is to transcend the constraints of evolution. The latter option does not imply that the transcendence will embrace all of humanity, and it may create enormous problems as far as transition costs go (I am trying to be clinical here). Others may prefer the reversion to a less technological society, in which case, perhaps you are a fan of the Dune novels. To each his own. I would not bet on being a "winner" in either scenario in all honesty (both the post-human and pre-modern options might work on a "winner take all" principle, in contrast to our cherished liberal democracy), but I would pick transhumanism as the most likely gamble for myself.
In the end Michael, I agree with your friend James Kalb, modern liberal society is going to be an ephemeral moment in history. Where I differ from him is his pining for a "restoration" of "what was lost." What was lost, was lost, is lost, and will be lost. Kalb is correct I believe in his skepticism about humans transcending our natural constraints. But it is not of humans that I dream....