The question of how society changes when we can enhance aspects of human capabilities is something we touch on regularly at WorldChanging. It's at least as important a question as how society adapts to climate change or embraces new tools for networking and communication; some of us would argue it may be even more important. As a topic of discussion, it has often been relegated to fringe culture and science fictional musing, but a series of books over the last year have brought the idea ever closer to the mainstream -- and the most recent may be set to make the question of how humankind evolves a front page issue.
Dr. James Hughes, bioethicist and sociologist at Trinity College and director of the World Transhumanist Association, published Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Futurein late 2004, examining the ways in which the technological enhancement of human capabilities and lives can strengthen liberal democratic cultures, not threaten them. (I interviewed Dr. Hughes last November, shortly after Citizen Cyborg was released: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.) In March of this year, Ramez Naam, software engineer and technology consultant, brought out More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biologiccal Enhancement, focusing on the ways in which biomedical treatments can and will improve human abilities and happiness. Both of these books -- which I highly recommend reading, even if you're a skeptic about the implications of human augmentation technologies -- received highly positive reviews and greatly advanced the conversation over whether and how to enhance human capabilities through technological intervention.
But I suspect it's the most recent book in this line which will have the greatest mainstream impact. Joel Garreau's Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- And What It Means To Be Human just came out a few days ago, and I expect it to end up on the summer reading lists of policy-makers and pundits everywhere. If Joel's name is familiar, it could be because he's a senior writer for the Washington Post, covering technology and society; it also could be because of his highly-regarded earlier books, The Nine Nations of North America and Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. Joel approaches his subjects with a journalist's detachment but a partisan's passion; I've known him for about a decade (he's a part of the GBN "Remarkable People" network), and he's never failed to have his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. If Joel's covering it, there's little doubt it will soon be a regular part of our cultural conversation.
Earlier this month, I had the extreme pleasure of hosting a conversation between James Hughes, Ramez Naam and Joel Garreau, exploring the implications of human enhancement technologies. While none of the three could be termed a "bio-conservative," there are clear differences between their perspectives on how society can and should respond to new technologies (the lack of a bio-conservative in the discussion was intentional; I wanted the group to be able to explore the edges of implications, not get tied up in arguments over terminology or moral standing). The conversation ran over two-and-a-half hours; the resulting transcript is correspondingly lengthy. But I expect that you'll find the discussion compelling and fascinating, and well worth your time.
And, as always, we appreciate your comments to continue the discussion.
(Please note that the interview was sufficiently lengthy that Movable Type was unable to hold it in a single post; the continuation of the interview follows at a link at the bottom of this post.)
Jamais Cascio: I think the one thing we're all in agreement on here is that we are as a society on the edge of a really profound transformation of how we identify ourselves, how we interact with each other, and most broadly how we live. At the same time I think all three of you have different perspectives on precisely what that means. Since I've known Joel the longest, we'll go age before beauty here. Why don't you go ahead and give us a start, Joel?
Joel Garreau: Well my perspective may differ a little bit from the rest of us in that I view myself as a reporter, not an advocate. I don't think I have a dog in this fight. I lay out three scenarios in "Radical Evolution" for how this might play out. You're looking at a curve of exponential change in technology. There are four technologies that are the driving forces. I call them the GRIN technologies: genetics, robotics, information, and nanotechnology. With the recurring doublings of this curve of exponential change, you have a situation in which the past 20 years is not a guide to the next 20 years. It's a guide at best to the next 8. And the last 50 years is not a guide to the next 50 years. It's at best a guide to the next 14. That alone is disconcerting. But then I start asking, what does this mean for society? Because I don't really care that much about transistors. I care about who we are, how we got that way, where we're headed, and what makes us tick. I think that's probably true for all of us.
I sketch out three scenarios. The first is the Heaven scenario. That's basically the Ray Kurzweil memorial scenario. In that, human society moves on a nice smooth curve equivalent to the curve of technological change and in no time at all we've conquered pain, suffering, death, and stupidity. It's a dramatic change in the society within 10 or 20 years and it's all largely good. I take that very seriously as a scenario, although I'm not a particular advocate of any of these.
Then scenario two is the Hell scenario, which is the Bill Joy memorial scenario. That's eerily a mirror image of the Heaven scenario. It agrees that we're looking at a curve of exponential change. It agrees that we're looking at the time compression. But the premise of that one is that these GRIN technologies are offering unprecedented power to individuals. If you do that, it's equivalent to handing a million individuals an atomic bomb and asking yourself do you suppose one of them might go off. In that scenario we're talking about extincting the species in 20 or 30 years. That's the optimistic view. The pessimistic view would be extincting the biosphere. I take that very seriously too.
(When I identify Kurzweil and Joy with these scenarios, they're just the most obvious people to talk about. But there are lots of others who agree.)
Then there's the third scenario, Prevail. It's not a middle scenario between Heaven and Hell. It's way off in an entirely different territory. The poster boy for that one is Jaron Lanier, who was important in the formulation of virtual reality. The critique that Prevail offers is that both Heaven and Hell assume that society is going to be pretty much driven by technology. If you were doing summer movies of Heaven and Hell there wouldn't be much of a plot. It would be: there are amazing changes occurring; there's not a hell of a lot we can do about it; hold on tight; the end. With fabulous special effects.
With Prevail the assumption is that human history is not necessarily linked to any driving forces, no matter how apparently powerful. It's assuming that even if the technology is on a smooth curve, that doesn't mean that the changes in human nature are on a smooth curve. They'll have farts and belches and reverses and loops like everything else throughout all of human history. It also assumes that the measure of change should be different from Heaven and Hell. Heaven and Hell are both basically measuring the number of contacts between transistors as the measure of change. Prevail assumes that the appropriate measure is the number of connections between human beings, not between transistors. Does that all make sense?
Cascio: Yeah, it does. And it's a good introduction. James? Talk to us about what you think the next 10 to 20 years holds for us.
James Hughes: Well Joel does lay out some of the things that are also on my time horizon. But I do have a dog in the fight: I've always been a political activist and on the side of democracy, equality, freedom, things like that, and one of my concerns here is that these technologies will change the terrain for a lot of the concerns that we've had over the last couple hundred years about creating a more democratic and equitable world. I want to make sure that we chart how to best create that world given those technologies. What I see as an initial response from a lot of the people that I would otherwise consider to be my allies politically is to try to shut down those processes of change.
So my intervention in these arguments has been to get people who are politically of good will to start thinking in a more serious way about the positive benefits that these technologies can bring to people's lives in the Heaven possibilities, as Joel puts it. And also to think about the Hell possibilities in a serious way because I don't think that simply banning technologies or even proposing that we ban these technologies is either a realistic option or sets us up for the appropriate policy discussions that we need to be having. Finally, in terms of the Prevail scenario, I do think that a lot of the techno-wonks on the other side have not given sufficient attention to the ways that technologies are the product of social relations and that different kinds of technologies can be produced by different kinds of societies depending on how those societies are structured.
In other words I think we need to be having a lot more discussion of intellectual property and we need to be having a lot more discussion of equitable distribution of these technologies. There's been a prevailing assumption that once they're available then everyone will eventually have them or will very quickly have them and I don't think that's necessarily the case.
So those have been the two ways that I've been trying to intervene. With the enthusiasts I talk about the equity and freedom issues, and with the equity and freedom folks I talk about the technology issues. So in terms of the way I see the next 30 years developing, I think we're gonna have a restructuring of our political landscape in really traumatic ways. There's going to be a political Moore's Law, political singularities to accompany the technological singularities and I've been trying to figure out where the dogs to bet on are in those fights.
Garreau: I'd like to hear more about the political Moore's Law.
Hughes: I've always been as a social theorist, a social scientist; I've always been pretty much a technological determinist, at least in the sense that technologies create the context for the kind of social relations and political relations that one can have. They change the terrain. They don't necessarily determine who the winners are going to be but they create these new possibilities. And so insofar as we're going to have a human-level brain on everybody's desk in 20 years connected to a global network of high-bandwidth connections that then start burrowing inside our own brains and connecting us one to each other I just don't see how we could possibly go on with the same kind of political structures and ideologies and so forth that we've had in the past.
I think that we'll need global governance to prevent the spread of very dangerous technologies, to have prophylactic answers to global climate change and species extinction and near earth asteroids and cataclysmic tsunamis and all these kinds of things. We also need global governance and global distribution in order to ensure that everyone gets access to the Heaven parts of these technologies, so that everyone in the developing world will have the life-extending shot when it becomes available. So a lot of the political fantasies that people like me, left-wing folks like me, have had for many hundreds of years will have an opportunity to be brought into fruition in the next 30 years.
Ramez Naam: Well I take a slightly different tack, I think, than either of the two last ones and part of it I think stems from the fact that I work in R&D myself. I work in software and I see big, complex things get built all the time and I see how much longer they take to come to fruition than people usually anticipate or plan for. So despite the Moore's Law and so on, I think change will be a bit slower than is projected by Kurzweil or Joy. I'm pretty skeptical on nano in it's most kind of world changing potential manifestations.
But I agree with something that I heard both James and Joel say, that a lot of what we'll see in terms of change is not driven by the technology itself, it's driven by human nature and innate human desire and kind of innate emergent features of systems in which many people interact. Things like the fact that once you create information it can be leveraged by many people, and that we as a society are just creating more and more of it. Some of that information is knowledge about how to do things like alter our genes and so on.
But let me elaborate somewhat on that being driven by human nature and human desires. What I would say -- let's say an exaggeration of my stance -- is that there's nothing new under the sun here. That these technologies, human enhancement technologies, are a logical extension, and an extension in degree rather than in kind, of things that we've been doing for millennia. That we've always sought more knowledge about the world around us, always sought more knowledge about our own minds and bodies, and new ways and more powerful ways to alter them. And more specifically that people have always been looking for ways to extend their health, extend their life spans, to advantage their children, to have more control over the material world.
The area that I focus on is really human enhancement rather than the whole spectrum of GRIN technologies, as Joel put it. Those technologies, the human enhancement ones, are very different from things like nuclear bombs, in that they for the most part have impact on the world one person at a time. They do not have the capacity for explosive, exponential spread throughout the planet destroying everything that they touch. The technologies that are forecast to do that -- I think we should be slightly skeptical of the claims of their coming into being. The most dangerous technology on the planet for the next 50 years, I suspect, will continue to be nuclear weapons.
As far as kind of social policy, I do have a stance on that, which is that throughout history it seems the societies that have flourished have been those that have maximized individual choice. We've seen this in terms of communist societies versus more open societies in the last century, and before that as well. The reason for that is that many people making individual decisions collectively form a more intelligent network, if you will, or a better global brain, than a few central policy makers. That's not to say that I'm against government regulation, I'm not; I think there are very valuable places for government to intervene, specifically around regulating safety, around regulating access to accurate information, and helping to guarantee that consumers have accurate information, and in assisting those who don't have the means to acquire these technologies when that's necessary. An analogy I'd draw there is to public education or vaccination programs. There's a lot of history of doing those things in a way that does not reduce human liberty and is still helps to boost equality and benefit society.
Cascio: So Mez, you feel that enhancement technologies are, in many respects, simply a continuation of historical trends?
Garreau: I'm not sure I agree with that, by the way.
Cascio: Well tell us why you don't agree with that, Joel.
Garreau: I think that this is an inflection point in history. This is a change in direction. For the last several hundred millennia, our technologies have been aimed outward, at modifying our environment, in the fashion of fire and clothes, agriculture, cities, airplanes, space travel, and so forth. What these technologies are doing are for the first time aimed inward, at modifying our minds, memories, metabolisms, personalities, progeny, and, therefore, possibly what it means to be human. When you start increasingly blurring the line between the made and the born, when you are increasingly controlling your own evolution, I think that's a real inflection point in history.
Cascio: Joel, how would you draw a difference between the biomedical technologies for internal transformation, internal enhancement, and something like yoga or lengthy therapy which can have very profound effects in terms of changing one's personality, changing one's behavior and beliefs?
Garreau: I don't know enough to answer that question. I mean I just don't know that much about yoga.
Cascio: I just use that as an example of something that has been going on for a long time that has an effect that sounds very similar to what you describe.
Garreau: It seems to me what we're talking about in the next 20, 30, 40, 50 years is a shift as profound in what it means to be human as was the case when we moved out from being Cro-Magnon or Neanderthals into modern humans. That's a pretty breathtaking thought. The question is where does the wisdom come from to handle that kind of transcendence. It's not that we humans haven't tried to transcend in the past. We've tried Cartesian logic, and we've tried Christian sanctification, and we've tried Buddhist enlightenment, and we've tried the new Soviet man, and there's countless others. These have had limited to mixed impact over history in terms of what it means to be human.
Cultural evolution has made a difference over the last 8,000 years. What it means to be human today is not what it meant to be human in the world of the nasty, brutish, and short lives of the people who first came across the Bering Straights into North America. I do think cultural evolution has mattered. Thus, if you're counting, I think what we're looking at is the third evolution. The first evolution being biological evolution that Darwin describes. The second being cultural evolution that basically covers the history of we humans being able to store and retrieve and collect the wisdom of billions of us collectively because of reading and writing and storytelling. But now with this engineered evolution, or this radical evolution, you're talking about making big changes in the internal aspects of our minds, memories, metabolisms, personalities, and progeny in a way that I don't think we've seen before. I don't know enough about yoga, but I don't think yoga has had a collective, massive effect on what it's meant to be human and I'm afraid this time that may be what we're talking about.
Hughes: If I can pick up on that, I emphasize more of the continuity, in that I argue in my book that the aspirations for transcendence which Joel references have intellectual and cultural precursors in our spiritual traditions, with every shaman who was trying to escape from sickness, aging, and death through their spiritual practices, and every religious tradition that promised a brighter, better world. These were the precursors that show that we have this aspiration for a dramatic transcendence of some kind. The melding of those aspirations with rationalism and humanism in the 16th, 17th centuries began to give birth to what we now understand to be a transhumanist movement, a movement toward a radical transformation of the human condition through science and technology. And I'm very taken with the argument also of Andy Clark when he argues in Natural Born Cyborg that the very first human intelligence augmentation was written language because when we wrote numbers down on a piece of paper in order to calculate, we're using those external objects in order to supplement our own cognition. We're offloading our memory into a piece of paper. We don't have to memorize those things anymore. And those technologies have had dramatic effects on human culture such as the decline of the oral tradition.
But I think we have a continuity of processes and aspirations at the same time as we have something qualitatively different emerge. For me another example of the political singularity that I see coming down the road is that although we've always had people who wanted to transcend the self - from a Buddhist point of view, recognizing that the self didn't really exist in the first place - one of the things I see coming about, probably in this century, is that nano-neural networks melded with cybernetics will make it extremely clear to people that the self is an illusion. We will begin to backup and copy and rewrite and be creative with our own selfhood in ways that will eventually lead to its dissolution and the reconfiguration of liberal democracy which is based on the notion of individual autonomous selves. The last chapter of Mez's book is pretty good on depicting what it might look like when people are walking around with these nano neural nets in their heads. But who gets a vote when we have the Borg? Does the whole Borg get one vote or do they get a million votes? Those questions are the ones that blow my mind.
Cascio: Is there a fundamental difference between augmentation and enhancement that's based on external artifacts and augmentation and enhancement that's based on genetic or very deeply internal changes?
Garreau: What are you thinking about when you say augmentation?
Cascio: Well I'm trying to use a fairly broad term because I think that to an extent I agree with the notion that things like paper and calendars and the like are in fact technologies of enhancement, technologies that add to individual capabilities. So augmentation can include memory enhancement, can include enhancements to one's physical abilities. I don't know if you saw the report that came out recently about a new kind of contact lens that makes it much easier for athletes, baseball players is the example they use, to see during the day. It's like wearing sunglasses right against your eyeballs.
Garreau: It gives you a really spooky pink ring around your eyeball, too.
Cascio: Exactly. So that's an example of an artifact-based augmentation as opposed to gene doping.
Hughes: Well if they were to get lasik, that does the same thing, that would be changing their own bodies. Are you asking whether there's a difference between wearing a contact lens and getting lasik?
Naam: Or if there's an important difference. I don't think there is, to be honest. Or if there is, it's really a function of how much can you do with kind of external augmentations. I think when you talk about internal augmentations the reason they seem more profound to people is that people imagine them being able to have more dramatic impacts. If I could have an internal alteration to my neural chemistry that changed me from an introvert to an extrovert or changed my sexual orientation that seems very profound to people. But it would seem just as profound, I think, if it were an external augmentation that did the same thing.
I think maybe a more interesting axis than external versus internal is permanent versus temporary. One of the things that people think about a lot, when they think about genetic alteration of humans, and human behavior in particular, people jump to the model of a parent genetically altering their children. I actually suspect that we'll see more use of genetic techniques, whether through pharmacogenetics and the creation of small molecule drugs or gene therapy or things like them for people to alter themselves rather than to alter their children. Parents, while highly motivated around their children's welfare, are even more motivated, it seems to me, around their children's safety. Whereas a lot of individuals, especially young adults in their early to mid 20's, are much more willing to take risks.
So one of the points that I try to make is that to the extent that it's a change in human nature, I don't think that we're seeing any permanent changes in human nature. I think what we're gonna see is more empowerment of individuals to alter their personality, behavior, emotional landscape, cognition or whatnot, on either a temporary or permanent basis as they choose. That's an additional capability to humans. It's not one they didn't have before, but it's one that's more dramatic I'd say.
Hughes: And it's one technology that's very troubling because when people are able to permanently change their own motivations, and what they consider to be important, how do we preserve individual choice and freedom? When you change your display in Windows it gives you a 10 second window in order to switch it back.
Hughes: When we have the ability to permanently rewire our brains to want new things we should build in that kind of fail-safe so that we switch back to our default mode and then say "now do I really want, for the rest of my life, to be a grub" or whatever it is that you're switching yourself over into.
Cascio: I'm really kinda concerned about the idea of using Windows as a metaphor for any of this.
Garreau: Yeah, that's the Hell scenario. A Windows crash, what an awful way to end the species.
Cascio: Actually that's part of Jaron Lanier's argument about why he doesn't worry about the Hell scenario, is that computers are fallible. And the Singularity -- the robot revolution -- will end with an operating system crash.
So there are several of these axes or tensions that seem to be coming up both in this conversation and in the broader literature: internal versus external augmentation, the permanent versus temporary, there's also the enhancement versus therapy concept, that some of these proposed and extant augmentations are valid and acceptable to society as long as they are bringing people who have some kind of disability up to the broadly accepted norm, whereas if they're used for enhancing the abilities of people who are otherwise able it's forbidden or prohibited or at the very least discouraged.
One example from Mez's book concerns the use of Ritalin. For people who have not been diagnosed with ADD, Ritalin actually can be extremely valuable as a way of focusing your attention. But you can't go out and get a Ritalin prescription or you can't buy it over the counter without having this particular medical diagnosis. Do you three feel that the enhancement therapy axis will continue to be an issue or how will that play out?
Garreau: Well I have a scenario on that. Take any enhancement technology. I'm think of the ones that exist, like Modafinil, trade name Provigil. This is the primitive prescription drug that allows you to stay awake without any of the side effects of speed or caffeine like jitter or paranoia. You always see the same path. The drug is originally aimed at the sick. In this case it was aimed at the narcoleptics who fall asleep uncontrollably. But within the blink of an eye it moves on to group two, which is the needy well; in this case it was instantly tested on Army helicopter pilots who were young and healthy. The Army discovered that these helicopter pilots could function splendidly for 40 hours without sleep and then have 8 hours of sleep and then do it again for another 40 hours.
And that's just the first iteration of this. The stuff that's in the pipeline is much more impressive in its effects. But the third group to be attracted to enhancements like this is where people start getting creeped out. And that's the merely ambitious, the people who want to stay awake either in the immortal words of Kiss, to "rock and roll all night and party every day," or they're just ambitious because they want to make partner in a law firm and they want to outperform their peers. And so they lunge at any enhancement that you can offer. Viagra was originally created for some other therapeutic reason but of course its big market has been the ambitious, if you will.
I think we're going to see that path with any enhancement and I think what freaks people out is the idea that it's going to be used by people who simply want to have advantage over their competitors. If you buy that path, then you're looking in the very near term at a potential division of the species between the Enhanced, the Naturals, and the Rest. The Enhanced are the people who have the interest and the money to embrace all of these enhancements. The Naturals are the ones who could do it if they wanted to, but they're like today's vegetarians or today's fundamentalists, and they eschew these enhancements for either aesthetic or political or religious reasons. The third group is the Rest and either for reasons of geography or money, they don't have access to these enhancements and they hate and envy the people who do. That division could get pretty exciting pretty fast in terms of conflict.
Cascio: I couldn't help but think as you were talking about the ambitious people taking the Provigil, the parallels there to mobile phones, fax machines, and being online. At a certain point over the last decade it became an expectation that if you were in certain businesses you had to have a mobile phone, you had to be online all the time and reachable all the time, such that that was not a choice.
Hughes: My answer to that complaint is that literacy is in the same boat. When you teach people to read are you making the illiterate less well off? Yes, in fact, in a generally literate society employers will generally want to hire literate people. But we don't then argue that we shouldn't teach people to read because we're making the illiterates worse off. We argue that we should teach everyone to read. So if there is a substantial population of Amish in the future who feel disenfranchised because they've decided not to take the cognitive enhancement drugs, and aren't able to work at what's considered the then normative level of work productivity and cognitive performance, I don't really think that the answer is to have a regulatory approach. I'm not suggesting that that's Joel's answer, but that is a lot of people's answer.
I also don't think that there's any useful distinction between therapy and enhancement although many people will persist in making it. My favorite example is that anti-aging medicine will stop an awful lot of diseases. I don't see how you can distinguish in that case between saying well this is also a prophylactic against cancer, and saying that it will extend my life a couple tens of decades. In terms of the psychopharmaceuticals I'm generally in favor of deregulation. As I said I think that there are gonna be some psychopharmaceuticals and neuro-nano technologies which will have very profound dangers attached to them, much more dangerous than heroin and cocaine are today. But we see with the Drug War today the tremendous social costs associated with restricting people's cognitive liberty.
My final point about this is that the real distinction in the future will be between what we have "in the Plan," that is what we have as a matter of universal access, and what we have in the market. Already we have "enhancements" covered by Medicaid or Medicare or by private health insurance, like breast reconstruction after cancer or Viagra, and so we just stretch our boundaries of what we consider to be therapeutic to include these cosmetic or life enhancements. At the same time, over in the marketplace, we have things like aspirin and Band-Aids which are indisputably therapeutic but we've decided that there's no useful reason why they need to be "in the Plan." So I think that's the kind of decision that we're gonna have to make in the future. If there are drugs or treatments or devices which threaten to radically exacerbate inequality in society that is the point at which you say everybody needs access to this through some kind of universal access system - put them in the plan and give them to everybody. But if the enhancements don't threaten those kinds of inequalities, then we can have a debate about whether they belong in the market or not.
Cascio: So is post-singularity Medicare the answer?
Garreau: It's a very attractive picture that we're painting here of things like global government and super-Medicare and all that. I wonder whether that's realistic politically.
Hughes: Well every other industrialized country in the world has single-payer healthcare. We're the only one that doesn't. So in every other country in the world there'll be this debate. In the U.S. we have to create that single-payer before we have that debate.
Garreau: It's not an accident that we're not agreeing on these things in this country. It's not just an oversight. I mean, I'm not defending this arrangement, I'm just observing this situation that we have. It's not like we're going to wake up some night and say "Oh, God, how silly of us, we're going in the opposite direction from the rest of the universe, let's change this overnight." These politics exist for a reason. I guess I'm saying this because I'm based in Washington, but I'm having difficulty picturing how we're going to get the Congress to buy our more utopian hopes and dreams.
Hughes: Joel don't you think that once we have an anti-aging pill that Medicare will provide it?
Garreau: That's a good question. I'm interested in guys like Francis Fukuyama and Leon Kass and people like that in the President's Council on Bioethics. They go so far as to defend pain and suffering as being essential to what it means to be human. And I don't necessarily agree with them but I give them plenty of points for style...
Cascio: I really wonder how many people, especially people who have gone through the very painful death of a loved-one, would accept that argument.
Naam: Can I just step in here a little bit? I think when we get into these conversations we're again succumbing to wild exaggeration of what is possible.
We will never eliminate death. We will never eliminate pain. We will never eliminate people who have personalities that are not exactly what they want. So we may talk about changes to the degree of those, but you could easily argue that aspirin should be subject to a moral debate about whether or not pain is a good thing. Well we've got lots of aspirin and other painkillers but that hasn't eliminated the phenomenon.
Garreau: Right. Well, do we want to discuss the bio-conservatives argument? These guys do exist and they are raising interesting questions. The way we got to this was because of the question of what's going to be politically possible. Right now these guys have the ear of a lot of powerful people.
Cascio: I think one thing that's interesting to me about this is that it underscores a point that James made earlier: that the course of these technological transformations is greatly shaped by the nature of the societies from which they spring. So yes, what you're describing, Joel, is a very accurate depiction of the way things stand in the U.S. but the U.S. is not going to be the only place that's dealing with the onset of these kinds of technologies.
Cascio: So one thing that will be very interesting to watch will be the divergence between the U.S. and Europe and India and China -- about how these technologies are made available. The cost. Would there be old people sneaking over the border to Canada to get anti-aging treatments because they aren't paid for by Medicare?
Garreau: I'm particularly interested in seeing where the Europeans go with this. If they can't take genetically altered food I wonder what's going to happen when they start being offered the possibility of, as you say, exceedingly long lifetimes or any of the other things. Lord knows Asians have plenty of their own taboos, but they are frequently different from the taboos that you'll find in the West. My understanding is that the idea of mucking around with your body to enhance it, increase muscle mass and stuff like that -- the whole Barry Bonds thing -- just totally perplexes them. They don't understand why we're getting so upset. It's going to be interesting.
Take the guys at the University of Pennsylvania who are genetically enhancing the so-called Schwarzenegger-mice [and cattle]. Lee Sweeney, the guy who does this, believes that the Athens Olympics was the last Olympics without genetically-modified participants. I keep on wondering what's going to happen if, for example, the entire Chinese Olympic team in 2008 comes out looking a whole hell of a lot different from a lot of their competitors and doing so in a fashion that you can't test. Is that going to be like Sputnik? Is that just going to rock people in a similar way?
Hughes: I think China is one of my biggest questions about the future because I, of course, like most people, never foresaw that the Soviet Union would collapse. And as soon as it collapsed I thought that in a matter of very short time that China would collapse as well, the Chinese Communist Party would collapse, and I thought that Tienanmen Square was the beginning of that. It hasn't been. China has established a relatively stable authoritarian model of capitalism and they're extremely enthusiastic about the GRIN technologies and they've poured a lot of money into them. Fifty percent of all bachelor's degree graduates in China are getting engineering degrees and we know that they have that kind of prowess. And I think if you imagine the authoritarian application of those technologies to a whole population of a billion and a half people the kinds of consequences in terms of social productivity that you could have. So I think that's my big fear, that authoritarian capitalist techno-savvy model might become the dominant model for a lot of the world in the coming 50 years.
Naam: I think both Joel and James make good points about Asia and the different culture there and I think James' concern about authoritarian models there is a good one. If that doesn't happen, I think there's something very interesting here which is that there is a world market independent of whether governments decide to pay for these technologies. It seems that the different social mores in Asian countries -- where not just the state but individuals are much more friendly to enhancement technologies, and genetics in particular -- mean that these things are going to be on the market and you can imagine that even in a non-authoritarian model that ends up producing an awful lot of competitive pressure on the U.S. and the European nations. If an economically strong country like South Korea or China starts to see wide-spread adoption of things like memory enhancers which are not adopted here in the U.S., and those things give a productivity boost, you can start to imagine people in D.C. talking about that as an economic disadvantage for the U.S. and about how we have to address that in the same ways they talk about college enrollments and the number of degrees coming out of universities and so on.
Garreau: Oh well, hell, how about the military implications?
Hughes: Nukes would be the only thing we would have left as an advantage.
Garreau: By the way, can we come back to that nukes proposition?
Garreau: Are we in agreement with Mez's statement that the most dangerous thing for the next 50 years is going to be nukes? Because I'm not sure I'd agree.
Hughes: I'm not. I think there's gonna be a proliferation of weapons of mass destruction coming out of these technologies. Although we didn't actually go to war because of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq - there weren't any there and we know the problems with that - we do actually need to create a much more interventionist and backed-up model of international action to track down weapons of mass destruction. And they're gonna become a hell of a lot more complicated to find because they are gonna be coming out of labs the size of the recording studio I'm sitting in right now.
Garreau: Right. This is the underpinning of Bill Joy's Hell scenario. He makes a big distinction between weaponized versions of the GRIN technologies and nukes. He says nukes require an industrial base that is at least the size of a rogue nation and it involves rare minerals and it's difficult and costly and blah, blah, blah. Whereas he argues the GRIN technologies are easily within the reach of a bright but demented graduate student. The reason he is totally convinced that the end of the species is nigh is because regulating nuclear weapons is child's play compared to regulating the GRIN technologies. Very few people want to have a nuclear bomb go off. Lots of people want to have brighter, healthier, more beautiful children. There enhancements are dual-use, he would argue, would be impossible to regulate.
Hughes: We need technological police. But I want to go back to a point that Ramez made earlier which is that we also need to imagine the ways that free people armed with the free use of technology can prophylactically protect themselves. So I think there's both a libertarian argument here that we need to give people as wide an access to things like the next version of Symantec Anti-Virus systems will be, for your body and for your ecosystem, but we also need to have regulatory police at an international level to track down and close down the most dangerous operations.
Cascio: I think that's one crucial point about the Bill Joy argument. He uses the phrase "knowledge-enabled weapons of mass destruction" and it's important to remember that the responses are also knowledge-enabled. Because there's a strong correlation between the ability to develop and apply knowledge and collaboration between numbers of people, we'd be in a much better position to be able to respond or develop prophylactics, as James puts it, with a scenario of knowledge-enabled problems.
Naam: I think that's a good argument. Just to come back to why I made that statement about nukes, I think that Joy's assessment -- that self-replicating technologies are inherently more dangerous than nukes in the long-run because they can spread like wild fire from a single source and potentially be manufactured using a much smaller base than nukes -- is correct.
The problem is not the manufacturing. It's the R&D. And the reality out there right now is that no one knows how to make a self-replicating nanobot. No matter what they say, no one is anywhere near this. In fact, if they could, you could imagine that they could build it out of macro-sized parts. The self-replication is not necessarily something that is a feature only of things built at this scale. It is a kind of a systems design problem, a complexity problem similar to complexity problems of large-scale software, but massively larger than anything that we've faced to date.
The other approach to kind of self-replicating agents that could be weaponized is the biological one, starting with existing pathogens and so on. I think that's much more plausible in the next few decades, but those things also take a bit of time, they run up against the kind of naturally evolved defenses that we have, and even there, while the synthesis might happen in a room as big as the one that James is in, the design takes a rather large infrastructure of a different sort which is potentially hundreds or thousands of scientists working on it, places to test it, try it out, and so on, and those things aren't that easy either. So overall I just think that designing any weapon of this sort is a much harder problem than either extreme enthusiasts or deep pessimists or those who fear these technologies make it out to be.
Cascio: One other data point I'd throw in here is that for a variety of reasons, the "gray goo" scenario -- which you didn't mention, but alluded to -- of self-replicating disassembling nanobots is essentially impossible, at least according to work done a few years back by Ralph Merkle at the Foresight Institute. The replicating threat issue is really overblown.
Garreau: Yeah, I agree. I'm in this kind of awkward position where I don't want to be constantly counterpunching people with whom I basically agree. But there are all these guys I talk to like Bill Joy who, if he were here, would bring up certain points. I guess it's my role to say what Bill would worry about. He's not worried about nanobots. That's a ways down the road. He's worried about accidents in a bio lab with a bright biology student. He points to the Australian mouse pox incident. Australia is one of those isolated ecosystems that has invasive species that sometimes run amok because they don't have any natural opponents. Apparently one of these species is mice. From time to time it's just mice everywhere. It just drive them nuts. So they're very keen on controlling mice. They were working on a mouse contraceptive and what happened was that they altered a gene in mouse pox and this new enhanced mouse pox virus was 100% fatal. Every mouse died. So they then tried it on mice that had supposedly been inoculated. And half of those died.
It was one of these kind of "oops" moments. Up until then, people had thought that if you genetically altered a virus it would necessarily become less effective. But in this case it became more effective. It was a surprise. Joy is terrified of surprises like this. Especially because what these researchers then went and did was publish their findings. It's available on the internet. You can go out there and create all the enhanced mouse pox you want today just by going to the literature. Mouse pox doesn't affect humans. But it's a close cousin of smallpox and this information, this knowledge-enabled weapon, is out there on the web right now. That just drives Bill Joy nuts. He thinks that this is suicidal behavior and that we're going to pay for it with hundreds of millions of deaths in the not too distant future.
Hughes: The problem with Bill's argument is that he's not even willing to argue for the global technology police which I'm arguing for. He wants some kind of vow of renunciation on the part of all technologists and I don't think that that's a realistic policy solution to this. I think that we need to have a more open source approach to the prevention of these kinds of disasters. We need to have everything out in the open as much as possible. And I think that could go along with having a technology police. Like the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, it's not that certain kinds of countries aren't allowed to do certain kinds of research, it's that we have to be able to inspect and make sure you're not making weapons out of the stuff.
Garreau: Do you think that's realistic?
Hughes: I think that that's the kind of regime we have to develop. The more open source solutions we have, the more we'll be able to detect when people are doing bad stuff and the better kinds of prophylactic measures we'll be able to take when they do. So with the case of bioweapons and bioterrorism, if a country was not preparing actively for the prospect of bioterrorism that would be crazy so I think we need to know that there are these threats out there, we need to know what kinds of threats there are and we need to be preparing for them.
Cascio: Well I wrote a piece a couple of years ago arguing for a strongly open-source approach to these kinds of technologies...
Garreau: To what end?
Cascio: Well precisely because of the security question. Because you're right, these Australian scientists discovering this thing about mouse pox and publishing that, that would make it simpler for somebody else to do the same. But the Australian scientists were not the only ones in the world who could discover that about mouse pox. And if it was a black lab somewhere that discovered this about mouse pox and did try to create a weaponized version of small pox out of it we're in a better position now to be able to respond to it because the biologists of the world have access to this information than we would if this had all been done in secret and nobody had any ability to even recognize what was going on.
Garreau: I think you're displaying a touching faith in the Department of Homeland Security.
Cascio: I'm not talking about homeland security. I'm talking about the global community of biological scientists.
Garreau: So a jar of this stuff gets opened up on Capitol Hill tomorrow and you think we're going to be able to respond to it correctly?
Cascio: Fast enough to save the Congress and the President? Probably not. But I will refrain from any further comment there.
Hughes: One of the few things the Bush Administration has recently said that I agree with is that we need to create a global system for the monitoring of emergent infectious diseases. I remember way back when I first got terrified by the prospect of bioterrorism. I started interviewing folks from the Federation of American Scientists and they said "look, SARS, avian flu, AIDS, these are killing real people. Bioterrorism incidents have not killed very many real people yet but these other diseases that emerge naturally have killed real people. What we need is a global monitoring system and an emergency fast response set of technological solutions for dealing with emergent diseases. Then it doesn't make any difference whether they come out of bioterrorism or not because most of the ones we're gonna have to deal with won't come out of bioterrorism."
Naam: One point I'd add is that when SARS came on the scene I think the gene sequencing of SARS happened in like eight days after people started working on it. A lot of the same technology that is making it much easier to develop these weapons is also making it much easier to decode them and figure out the cures.
(The interview continues at Human Changing (Continued))