Seemingly, humans are coming upon another crossroad in our evolution. Nanotechnology has evolved to the point of being able to create cyborg flesh and inventing a robot controlled by rat brain cells. Eventually, this technology could be used for a variety of applications for humans, creating a new race of machine folk.
As with any new technological advance, questions are presented that need to be addressed. How do we regulate it; should it be commercialized; what are the ethical and philosophical ramifications of the new tech; or should we even be going down this road? Is this something that people would want: eventually, to artificially alter the way your brain works until death, so you can work longer or keep your mental wits about you in old age?
Concerns like these are being brought up by major scientific organizations. Similarly, in 2000, Bill Joy, Chief Scientist at Sun Microsystems, tackled the question of nanotechnology’s influence on our evolution in a very provoking essay that is worth the time to read. Among his reservations regarding nanotechnology’s apparently imminent pervasiveness, he quoted George Dyson, author of Darwin Amongst the Machines:
In the game of life and evolution there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines.
A lot of Joy’s essay deals with trying to confront nanotechnology as a potential threat to human survival. Quoting Dyson seems to imply that, when it comes down to it, nature, through the use of machines, may try to bat humans back after a time of humans trying to dominate nature itself. An ironic tragedy, since we primarily conceive robots to work for us.
The source of this confrontation and soul searching was spurred on by a passage Joy read in a book written by the Grand Poobah of Transhumanism, Ray Kurzweil, called The Age of Spiritual Machines. It turns out that Kurzweil actually quoted this passage from Ted Kaczynski’s Industrial Society and Its Future, also known as the Unabomber Manifesto.
Kurzweil quoted the passage as an example of how much he agreed with Kaczynski when reading the Manifesto. To Kurzweil’s mind, it seems the harms that Kaczynski saw, and compelled him to terrorism, were benefits of a new robotic and transhuman future. Any actual risks were overshadowed by the potential benefits of the new utopia. Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines, pg. 185:
The material gains are obvious: economic advancement, the shaping of material resources to meet age-old needs, the extension of our life spans, improvements in health, and so on. However, that’s not actually my primary point.
I see the opportunity to expand our minds, to extend our learning, and to advance our ability to create and understand knowledge as an essential spiritual quest. Feigenbaum and McCorduck talk about this as an “audacious, some would say reckless, embarkation onto sacred ground.”
I share Bill Joy’s trepidation at the time of that essay (it’s been 12 years since written and he could have changed his mind since) for the human-robot future where humans are near immortal, and are essentially left to their own hobbies. But, is that really our future, or is this just alarmism brought about by a fear of the unknown? There are, of course, other possibilities. Stephen Hawking has been oft-quoted, “Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward looking on planet Earth but to spread out into space.” It’s certainly a future where robots have a necessary place; even perhaps complementary to a borg-central future, though less necessary.
Would I want to be set up as a borg, if it meant I could have near immortality? Probably not. I asked my wife the same question this morning, and she said the same. Given to human feelings, we concluded that it ultimately feels unnatural.
Would you want near immortality, and all that comes with that, if it meant life as a half-machine? And do you think that this instance of unnatural could become natural in our near future? Let us know in comments.