Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (8 page)

However, once technology enables us to re-engineer human minds,
Homo sapiens
will disappear, human history will come to an end and a completely new kind of process will begin, which people like you and me cannot comprehend. Many scholars try to predict how the world will look in the year 2100 or 2200. This is a waste of time. Any worthwhile prediction must take into account the ability to re-engineer human minds, and this is impossible. There are many wise answers to the question, ‘What would people with minds like ours do with biotechnology?’ Yet there are no good answers to the question, ‘What would beings with a
kind of mind do with biotechnology?’ All we can say is that people similar to us are likely to use biotechnology to re-engineer their own minds, and our present-day minds cannot grasp what might happen next.

Though the details are therefore obscure, we can nevertheless be sure about the general direction of history. In the twenty-first century, the third big project of humankind will be to acquire for us divine powers of creation and destruction, and upgrade
Homo sapiens
Homo deus
. This third project obviously subsumes the first two projects, and is fuelled by them. We want the ability to re-engineer our bodies and minds in order, above all, to escape old age, death and misery, but once we have it, who knows what else we might do with such ability? So we may well think of the new human agenda as consisting really of only one project (with many branches): attaining divinity.

If this sounds unscientific or downright eccentric, it is because people often misunderstand the meaning of divinity. Divinity isn’t a vague metaphysical quality. And it isn’t the same as omnipotence. When speaking of upgrading humans into gods, think more in terms of Greek gods or Hindu devas rather than the omnipotent biblical sky father. Our descendants would still have their foibles, kinks and limitations, just as Zeus and Indra had theirs. But they could love, hate, create and destroy on a much grander scale than us.

Throughout history most gods were believed to enjoy not omnipotence but rather specific super-abilities such as the ability to design and create living beings; to transform their own bodies; to control the environment and the weather; to read minds and to communicate at a distance; to travel at very high speeds; and of course to escape death and live indefinitely. Humans are in the business of acquiring all these abilities, and then some. Certain traditional abilities that were considered divine for many millennia have today become so commonplace that we hardly think about them. The average person now moves and communicates across distances much more easily than the Greek, Hindu or African gods of old.

For example, the Igbo people of Nigeria believe that the creator god Chukwu initially wanted to make people immortal. He sent a dog to tell humans that when someone dies, they should sprinkle ashes on the corpse, and the body will come back to life. Unfortunately, the dog was tired and he dallied on the way. The impatient Chukwu then sent a sheep, telling her to make haste with this important message. Alas, when the breathless sheep reached her destination, she garbled the instructions, and told the humans to bury their dead, thus making death permanent. This is why to this day we humans must die. If only Chukwu had a Twitter account instead of relying on laggard dogs and dim-witted sheep to deliver his messages!

In ancient agricultural societies, most religions revolved not around metaphysical questions and the afterlife, but around the very mundane issue of increasing agricultural output. Thus the
Old Testament God
promises any rewards or punishments after death. He instead tells the people of Israel that ‘If you carefully observe the commands that I’m giving you [. . .] then I will send rain on the land in its season [. . .] and you’ll gather grain, wine, and oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your livestock, and you’ll eat and be satisfied. Be careful! Otherwise, your hearts will deceive you and you will turn away to serve other gods and worship them. The wrath of God will burn against you so that he will restrain the heavens and it won’t rain. The ground won’t yield its produce and you’ll be swiftly destroyed from the good land that the Lord is about to give you’ (Deuteronomy 11:13–17). Scientists today can do much better than the Old Testament God. Thanks to artificial fertilisers, industrial insecticides and genetically modified crops, agricultural production nowadays outstrips the highest expectations ancient farmers had of their gods. And the parched state of Israel no longer fears that some angry deity will restrain the heavens and stop all rain – for the Israelis have recently built a huge desalination plant on the shores of the Mediterranean, so they can now get all their drinking water from the sea.

So far we have competed with the gods of old by creating better and better tools. In the not too distant future, we might create superhumans who will outstrip the ancient gods not in their tools, but in their bodily and mental faculties. If and when we get there, however, divinity will become as mundane as cyberspace – a wonder of wonders that we just take for granted.

We can be quite certain that humans will make a bid for divinity, because humans have many reasons to desire such an upgrade, and many ways to achieve it. Even if one promising path turns out to be a dead end, alternative routes will remain open. For example, we may discover that the human genome is far too complicated for serious manipulation, but this will not prevent the development of brain–computer interfaces, nano-robots or artificial intelligence.

No need to panic, though. At least not immediately. Upgrading Sapiens will be a gradual historical process rather than a Hollywood apocalypse.
Homo sapiens
is not going to be exterminated by a robot
revolt. Rather,
Homo sapiens
is likely to upgrade itself step by step, merging with robots and computers in the process, until our descendants will look back and realise that they are no longer the kind of animal that wrote the Bible, built the Great Wall of China and laughed at Charlie Chaplin’s antics. This will not happen in a day, or a year. Indeed, it is already happening right now, through innumerable mundane actions. Every day millions of people decide to grant their smartphone a bit more control over their lives or try a new and more effective antidepressant drug. In pursuit of health, happiness and power, humans will gradually change first one of their features and then another, and another, until they will no longer be human.

Can Someone Please Hit the Brakes?

Calm explanations aside, many people panic when they hear of such possibilities. They are happy to follow the advice of their smartphones or to take whatever drug the doctor prescribes, but when they hear of upgraded superhumans, they say: ‘I hope I will be dead before that happens.’ A friend once told me that what she fears most about growing old is becoming irrelevant, turning into a nostalgic old woman who cannot understand the world around her, or contribute much to it. This is what we fear collectively, as a species, when we hear of superhumans. We sense that in such a world, our identity, our dreams and even our fears will be irrelevant, and we will have nothing more to contribute. Whatever you are today – be it a devout Hindu cricket player or an aspiring lesbian journalist – in an upgraded world you will feel like a Neanderthal hunter in Wall Street. You won’t belong.

The Neanderthals didn’t have to worry about the Nasdaq, since they were shielded from it by tens of thousands of years. Nowadays, however, our world of meaning might collapse within decades. You cannot count on death to save you from becoming completely irrelevant. Even if gods don’t walk our streets by 2100, the attempt to upgrade
Homo sapiens
is likely to change the world beyond recognition in this century. Scientific research and
technological developments are moving at a far faster rate than most of us can grasp.

If you speak with the experts, many of them will tell you that we are still very far away from genetically engineered babies or human-level artificial intelligence. But most experts think on a timescale of academic grants and college jobs. Hence, ‘very far away’ may mean twenty years, and ‘never’ may denote no more than fifty.

I still remember the day I first came across the Internet. It was back in 1993, when I was in high school. I went with a couple of buddies to visit our friend Ido (who is now a computer scientist). We wanted to play table tennis. Ido was already a huge computer fan, and before opening the ping-pong table he insisted on showing us the latest wonder. He connected the phone cable to his computer and pressed some keys. For a minute all we could hear were squeaks, shrieks and buzzes, and then silence. It didn’t succeed. We mumbled and grumbled, but Ido tried again. And again. And again. At last he gave a whoop and announced that he had managed to connect his computer to the central computer at the nearby university. ‘And what’s there, on the central computer?’ we asked. ‘Well,’ he admitted, ‘there’s nothing there yet. But you could put all kinds of things there.’ ‘Like what?’ we questioned. ‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘all kinds of things.’ It didn’t sound very promising. We went to play ping-pong, and for the following weeks enjoyed a new pastime, making fun of Ido’s ridiculous idea. That was less than twenty-five years ago (at the time of writing). Who knows what will come to pass twenty-five years from now?

That’s why more and more individuals, organisations, corporations and governments are taking very seriously the quest for immortality, happiness and godlike powers. Insurance companies, pension funds, health systems and finance ministries are already aghast at the jump in life expectancy. People are living much longer than expected, and there is not enough money to pay for their pensions and medical treatment. As seventy threatens to become the new forty, experts are calling to raise the retirement age, and to restructure the entire job market.

When people realise how fast we are rushing towards the great unknown, and that they cannot count even on death to shield them from it, their reaction is to hope that somebody will hit the brakes and slow us down. But we cannot hit the brakes, for several reasons.

Firstly, nobody knows where the brakes are. While some experts are familiar with developments in one field, such as artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, big data or genetics, no one is an expert on everything. No one is therefore capable of connecting all the dots and seeing the full picture. Different fields influence one another in such intricate ways that even the best minds cannot fathom how breakthroughs in artificial intelligence might impact nanotechnology, or vice versa. Nobody can absorb all the latest scientific discoveries, nobody can predict how the global economy will look in ten years, and nobody has a clue where we are heading in such a rush. Since no one understands the system any more, no one can stop it.

Secondly, if we somehow succeed in hitting the brakes, our economy will collapse, along with our society. As explained in a later chapter, the modern economy needs constant and indefinite growth in order to survive. If growth ever stops, the economy won’t settle down to some cosy equilibrium; it will fall to pieces. That’s why capitalism encourages us to seek immortality, happiness and divinity. There’s a limit to how many shoes we can wear, how many cars we can drive and how many skiing holidays we can enjoy. An economy built on everlasting growth needs endless projects – just like the quests for immortality, bliss and divinity.

Well, if we need limitless projects, why not settle for bliss and immortality, and at least put aside the frightening quest for superhuman powers? Because it is inextricable from the other two. When you develop bionic legs that enable paraplegics to walk again, you can also use the same technology to upgrade healthy people. When you discover how to stop memory loss among older people, the same treatments might enhance the memory of the young.

No clear line separates healing from upgrading. Medicine almost always begins by saving people from falling below the norm, but the same tools and know-how can then be used to surpass the norm.
Viagra began life as a treatment for blood-pressure problems. To the surprise and delight of Pfizer, it transpired that Viagra can also cure impotence. It enabled millions of men to regain normal sexual abilities; but soon enough men who had no impotence problems in the first place began using the same pill to surpass the norm, and acquire sexual powers they never had before.

What happens to particular drugs can also happen to entire fields of medicine. Modern plastic surgery was born in the First World War, when Harold Gillies began treating facial injuries in the Aldershot military hospital.
When the war was over, surgeons discovered that the same techniques could also turn perfectly healthy but ugly noses into more beautiful specimens. Though plastic surgery continued to help the sick and wounded, it devoted increasing attention to upgrading the healthy. Nowadays plastic surgeons make millions in private clinics whose explicit and sole aim is to upgrade the healthy and beautify the wealthy.

The same might happen with genetic engineering. If a billionaire openly stated that he intended to engineer super-smart offspring, imagine the public outcry. But it won’t happen like that. We are more likely to slide down a slippery slope. It begins with parents whose genetic profile puts their children at high risk of deadly genetic diseases. So they perform
in vitro
fertilisation, and test the DNA of the fertilised egg. If everything is in order, all well and good. But if the DNA test discovers the dreaded mutations – the embryo is destroyed.

Yet why take a chance by fertilising just one egg? Better fertilise several, so that even if three or four are defective there is at least one good embryo. When this
in vitro
selection procedure becomes acceptable and cheap enough, its usage may spread. Mutations are a ubiquitous risk. All people carry in their DNA some harmful mutations and less-than-optimal alleles. Sexual reproduction is a lottery. (A famous – and probably apocryphal – anecdote tells of a meeting in 1923 between Nobel Prize laureate Anatole France and the beautiful and talented dancer Isadora Duncan. Discussing the then popular eugenics movement, Duncan said, ‘Just imagine a child with
my beauty and your brains!’ France responded, ‘Yes, but imagine a child with
beauty and
brains.’) Well then, why not rig the lottery? Fertilise several eggs, and choose the one with the best combination. Once stem-cell research enables us to create an unlimited supply of human embryos on the cheap, you can select your optimal baby from among hundreds of candidates, all carrying your DNA, all perfectly natural, and none requiring any futuristic genetic engineering. Iterate this procedure for a few generations, and you could easily end up with superhumans (or a creepy dystopia).

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