The answers to Edge.org's annual Big Question have been posted and this year's crop has a decidedly transhumanist flavor. In answering the question, "What will change everything? What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?," a number of leading thinkers have converged around the idea that biotechnology will yield some of the most profound changes to the human condition later this century.
Though no one used the 'T' word explicitly, it's becoming clear that 1) the notion of self-guided human evolution is becoming increasingly accepted amongst academics and intellectuals and 2) the scientific and technological plausibility of creating a transhuman condition has never been greater.
Below are some key quotes from those who foresee a future in which the human species takes control over its biological destiny. I've also included some predictions about AI and molecular nanotechnology as they are an indelible part of the NBIC future.
[Congratulations to Nick Bostrom and Aubrey de Grey for their entries]
Kevin Kelly: AI: "It is hard to imagine anything that would "change everything" as much as a cheap, powerful, ubiquitous artificial intelligence—the kind of synthetic mind that learns and improves itself. A very small amount of real intelligence embedded into an existing process would boost its effectiveness to another level. We could apply mindfulness wherever we now apply electricity. The ensuing change would be hundreds of times more disruptive to our lives than even the transforming power of electrification."
Howard Gardner: Cracking open the lockbox of talent: "For the first time, it should be possible to delineate the nature of talent. This breakthrough will come about through a combination of findings from genetics (do highly talented individuals have a distinctive, recognizable genetic profile?); neuroscience (are there structural or functional neural signatures, and, importantly, can these be recognized early in life?); cognitive psychology (are the mental representations of talented individuals distinctive when contrasted to those of hard workers); and the psychology of motivation (why are talented individuals often characterized as having 'a rage to learn, a passion to master?)"
Ed Regis: Molecular nanotechnology: "But what if [molecular] nanotechnology in the radical and grandiose sense actually became possible? What if, indeed, it became an operational reality? That would be a fundamentally transformative development, changing forever how manufacturing is done and how the world works. Imagine all of our material needs being produced at trivial cost, without human labor, and with no waste. No more sweat shops, no more smoke-belching factories, no more grinding workdays or long commutes. The magical molecular assemblers will do it all, permanently eliminating poverty in the process."
Juan Enriquez: Homo evolutis: "Speciation will not be a deliberate, programmed event. Instead it will involve an ever faster accumulation of small, useful improvements that eventually turn homo sapiens into a new hominid. We will likely see glimpses of this long-lived, partly mechanical, partly regrown creature that continues to rapidly drive its own evolution. As the branches of the tree of life, and of hominids, continue to grow and spread, many of our grandchildren will likely engineer themselves into what we would consider a new species, one with extraordinary capabilities, a homo evolutis."
Karl Sabbagh: A farewell to harm: "A method to eliminate 'pattern D' [death pattern] will lead to the most significant change ever in the way humans — and therefore societies — behave. And somewhere, in the fields of neurobiology or genetic modification today the germ of that change may already be present.
Marc D. Hauser: The actual, the possible, and the unimaginable: "Now let your imagination run wild. What would a chimpanzee do with the generative machinery that a human has when it is running computations in language, mathematics and music? Could it imagine the previously unimaginable? What if we gave a genius like Einstein the key components that made Bach a different kind of genius? Could Einstein now imagine different dimensions of musicality? These very same neural manipulations are now even possible at the genetic level. Genetic engineering allows us to insert genes from one species into another, or manipulate the expressive range of a gene, jazzing it up or turning it off."
Marcelo Gleiser: Mastering death: "I can think of two ways in which mortality can be tamed. One at the cellular level and the other through an integration of body with genetic, cognitive sciences, and cyber technology. I'm sure there are others."
Nick Bostrom: Superintelligence: "Whether abrupt and singular, or more gradual and multi-polar, the transition from human-level to superintelligence would of pivotal significance. Superintelligence would be the last invention biological man would ever need to make, since, by definition, it would be much better at inventing than we are. All sorts of theoretically possible technologies could be developed quickly by superintelligence — advanced molecular manufacturing, medical nanotechnology, human enhancement technologies, uploading, weapons of all kinds, lifelike virtual realities, self-replicating space-colonizing robotic probes, and more. It would also be super-effective at creating plans and strategies, working out philosophical problems, persuading and manipulating, and much else beside."
Gregory Paul: The first major upgrade of the human brain and the mind it generates since the pleistocene: "...it should be possible to use alternative, technological means to produce conscious thought. Efforts are already underway to replace damaged brain parts such as the hippocampus with hypercomputer implants. If and when the initial medical imperative is met, elective implants will undoubtedly be used to upgrade normal brain operations. As the fast evolving devices improve they will begin to outperform the original brain, it will make less and less sense to continue to do one's thinking in the old biological clunker, and formerly human minds will become entirely artificial as they move into ultra sophisticated, dispersed robot systems. Assuming that the above developments are practical, technological progress will not merely improve the human condition, it should replace it. The conceit that humans in anything like their present form will be able to compete in a world of immortal superminds with unlimited intellectual capacity is naïve; there simply will not be much for people to do. Do not for a minute imagine a society of crude Terminators, or Datas that crave to be as human as possible. Future robots will be devices of subtle sophistication and sensitivity that will expose humans as the big brained apes we truly are. The logic predicts that most humans will choose to become robotic."
George Dyson: Interstellar viruses: "Life, assuming it exists elsewhere in the universe, will have had time to explore an unfathomable diversity of forms. Those best able to survive the passage of time, adapt to changing environments, and migrate unscathed across interstellar distances will become the most widespread. Life forms that assume digital representation, for all or part of their life cycle, will not only be able to send messages at the speed of light, they will be able to send themselves."
Freeman Dyson: "Radiotelepathy", the direct communication of feelings and thought from brain to brain: "These physical tools would make possible the practice of "Radiotelepathy", the direct communication of feelings and thoughts from brain to brain. The ancient myth of telepathy, induced by occult and spooky action-at-a-distance, would be replaced by a prosaic kind of telepathy induced by physical tools. To make radiotelepathy possible, we have only to invent two new technologies, first the direct conversion of neural signals into radio signals and vice versa, and second the placement of microscopic radio transmitters and receivers within the tissue of a living brain. I do not have any idea of the way these inventions will be achieved, but I expect them to emerge from the rapid progress of neurology before the twenty-first century is over."
Irene Pepperberg: Thinking small: understanding the brain: "We will...attempt to improve upon the current human brain in an anatomical sense, or, in a much more acceptable manner, determine what forms of teaching and training enable learning to proceed most rapidly, by enhancing appropriate connectivity and memory formation. Different types of intelligence will likely be found to be correlated with particular brain organizational patterns; thus we will identify geniuses of particular sorts more readily and cultivate their abilities."
Mark Pagel: We are learning to make phenotypes: "If these developments are not life changing enough, they will, in the longer-term usher in a new era in which our minds, the thing that we think of as "us", can become separated from our body, or nearly separated anyway. I don't suggest we will be able to transplant our mind to another body, but we will be able to introduce new body parts into existing bodies with a resident mind. With enough such replacements, we will become potentially immortal: like ancient buildings that exist only because over the centuries each of their many stones has been replaced. An intriguing aspect of re-programming cells is that they can be induced to 'forget' how old they are. Aging will become a thing of the past if you can afford enough new pieces. We will then discover the extent to which our minds arise from perceptions of our bodies and the passage of time. If you give an old person the body of a teenager do they start to behave and think like one? Who knows, but it will be game-changing to find out."
Andy Clark: Celebratory self re-engineering: "The technologies are pouring in, from wearable, implantable, and pervasive computing, to the radical feature blends achieved using gene transfer techniques, to thought-controlled cursors freeing victims of locked-in syndrome, to funkier prosthetic legs able to win track races, and on to the humble but transformative iPhone."
Aubrey de Grey: The unmasking of true human nature: "The transformative technologies I have mentioned will, in my view, probably all arrive within the next few decades—a timeframe that I personally expect to see. And we will use them, directly or indirectly, to address all the other slings and arrows that humanity is heir to: biotechnology to combat aging will also combat infections, molecular manufacturing to build unprecedentedly powerful machines will also be able to perform geoengineering and prevent hurricanes and earthquakes and global warming, and superintelligent computers will orchestrate these and other technologies to protect us even from cosmic threats such as asteroids—even, in relatively short order, nearby supernovae. (Seriously.) Moreover, we will use these technologies to address any irritations of which we are not yet even aware, but which grow on us as today's burdens are lifted from our shoulders. Where will it all end?"
Gregory Benford: Live to 150: "Quite soon, simple pills containing designer supplements will target our most common disorders — cardiovascular, diabetes, neurological. Beyond that, the era of affordable, personal genomics makes possible designer supplements, now called neutrigenomics. Tailored to each personal genome, these can enforce the repair mechanisms and augmentations that nature herself provided to the genomically fortunate."
Barry Smith: Little changes make the biggest difference: "Could there come a time when we intend to communicate and do so without talking out loud?...we would need something subtly different but no less astounding: a way of controlling in thought, and committing to send, the signals in the motor cortex that would normally travel to our articulators and ultimately issue in speech sounds. A device, perhaps implanted or appended, would send the signals and another device in receivers would read them and stimulate similar movements or commands in their motor cortex, giving them the ability, through neural mimicry, to reproduce silently the speech sounds they would make if they were saying them."
Susan Blackmore: Artificial, self-replicating meme machines: "Have we inadvertently let loose a third replicator that is piggy-backing on human memes? I think we have. The information these machines copy is not human speech or actions; it is digital information competing for space in giant servers and electronic networks, copied by extremely high fidelity electronic processes. I think that once all three processes of copying, varying and selecting are done by these machines then a new replicator has truly arrived. We might call these level-three replicators “temes” (technological-memes) or “tremes” (tertiary memes). Whatever we call them, they and their copying machinery are here now. We thought we were creating clever tools for our own benefit, but in fact we were being used by blind and inevitable evolutionary processes as a stepping stone to the next level of evolution."
Kenneth W. Ford: Reading Minds: "Not in my lifetime, but someday, somewhere, some team will figure out how to read your thoughts from the signals emitted by your brain. This is not in the same league as human teleportation—theoretically possible, but in truth fictional. Mind reading is, it seems to me, quite likely. And, as we know from hard disks and flash memories, to be able to read is to be able to write. Thoughts will be implantable."
Lewis Wolpert: Computing the embryo: "We know much about the mechanisms involved in the development of embryos. But given the genome of the egg we cannot predict the way the embryo will develop. This will require a enormous computation in which all the many thousands of components , particularly proteins, are involved and so the behavior of every cell will be known. We would, given a fertilized human egg be able to have a picture of all the details of the newborn baby, including any abnormalities. We would also be able to programme the egg to develop into any shape we desire. The time will come when this is possible."
David Dalrymple: Escaping the gravity well: "If civilization is to continue expanding, however, as well it shall if it does not collapse, it must escape the tiny gravity well it is trapped in. It is quite unclear to me how this will happen: whether humans will look anything like the humans of today, whether we will escape to sun-orbiting space stations or planetary colonies, but if we expand, we must expand beyond Earth. Even if environmentalists succeed in building a sustainable terrestrial culture around local farming and solar energy, it will only remain sustainable if we limit reproduction, which I expect most of modern society to find unconscionable on some level."
Frank J. Tipler: But we shall all be changed: "Humanity will see, before I die, the "Singularity," the day when we finally create a human level artificial intelligence. This involves considering the physics advances that will be required to create the computer that is capable of running a strong AI program."
Helen Fisher: Hidden persuaders '09: "The black box of our humanity, the brain, is inching open. And as we peer inside for the first time in human time, you and I will hold the biological codes that direct our deepest wants and feelings. We have begun to use these codes too. I, for example, often tell people that if they want to ignite or sustain feelings of romantic love in a relationship, they should do novel and exciting things together—to trigger or sustain dopamine activity. Some 100 million prescriptions for antidepressants are written annually in the United States. And daily many alter who we are in other chemical ways. As scientists learn more about the chemistry of trust, empathy, forgiveness, generosity, disgust, calm, love, belief, wanting and myriad other complex emotions, motivations and cognitions, even more of us will begin to use this new arsenal of weapons to manipulate ourselves and others. And as more people around the world use these hidden persuaders, one by one we may subtly change everything."
Emanuel Derman: No more time decay: "No one dies. No one gets older. No one gets sick. You can't tell how old someone is by looking at them or touching them. No May-September romances. No room for new people. Everyone's an American car in Havana, endlessly repaired and maintained long after its original manufacturer is defunct. No breeding. No one born. No more evolution. No sex. No need to hurry. No need to console anyone. If you want something done, give it to a busy man, but no one need be busy when you have forever. Life without death changes absolutely everything."
Brian Knutson: Neurophenomics + targeted stimulation = psychological optimization?: "These technological developments will not only improve clinical treatment, but will also advance scientific theory. Along with applications designed to cure will come demands for applications that aim to enhance. What if we could precisely but noninvasively modulate mood, alertness, memory, control, willpower, and more? Of course, everyone wants to win the brain game. But are we ready for the rules to change?"
Marcel Kinsbourne: Neurocosmetics: "Certainly, deep brain stimulation is not currently used to render sane people more thoughtful, agreeable, gentle or considerate. Potential adverse neurosurgical side effects aside, ethical considerations prohibit using deep brain stimulation to enhance a brain considered to be normal. But history teaches two lessons: Any technology will tend to become more precise, effective and safer over time, and, anything that can be done, ultimately will be done, philosophical and ethical considerations notwithstanding."
Seth Lloyd: Undo the present; recall the past: "Whether or not they change the world, quantum computers have something to offer to all of us. When they flip those atomic bits to perform their computations, quantum computers possess a several useful features. It's well known that quantum computers, properly programmed, afford their users privacy and anonymity guaranteed by the laws of physics. A less well-known virtue of quantum computers is that everything that they do, they can undo as well. This ability is built into quantum computers at the level of fundamental physical law. At their most microscopic level, the laws of physics are reversible: what goes forward can go backward."
John Tooby & Leda Cosmides: the great pivot: artificial intelligences, native intelligences, and the bridge between: "The long-term ambition is to develop a model of human nature as precise as if we had the engineering specifications for the control systems of a robot. Of course, both theory and evidence indicate that the programming of the human is endlessly richer and subtler than that of any foreseeable robot."
Sherry Turkle: The robotic moment: "I will see the development of robots that people will want to spend time with. Not just a little time, time in which the robots serve as amusements, but enough time and with enough interactivity that the robots will be experienced as companions, each closer to a someone than a something. I think of this as the robotic moment."
Marco Iacoboni: Immortal cognition, boundless happiness: "The real game changer will be the immortal cognition (well, not really, but close enough) and boundless happiness (ok, again, not really, but close enough) provided by painless brain stimulation."
Paul Saffo: Discovery (or creation) of non-human intelligence cures humankind’s existential loneliness: "Artificial companions will make for more intimate conversations, not just because of their proximity, but because they will speak our language from the first moment of their stirring sentience. However, I fear what might happen as they evolve exponentially. Will they become so smart that they no longer want to talk to us? Will they develop an agenda of their own that makes utterly no sense from a human perspective? A world shared with super-intelligent robots is a hard thing to imagine. If we are lucky, our new mind children will treat us as pets. If we are very unlucky, they will treat us as food."
Bart Kosko: Cheap cryonic suspension of brains: "Today we almost always either bury dead brains or burn them. Both disposal techniques result in irreversible loss of personhood information because both techniques either slowly or quickly destroy all the brain tissue that houses a person's unique neural-net circuitry. The result is a neural information apocalypse and all the denial and superstition that every culture has evolved to cope with it."
A. Garrett Lisi: Changes in the changers: "It may not happen within my lifetime, but the biggest game change will be the ultimate synthesis of computation and biology. Biotech will eventually allow our brains to be scanned at a level sufficient to preserve our memories and reproduce our consciousness when uploaded to a more efficient computational substrate. At this point our mind may be copied, and, if desired, embedded and connected to the somatic helms of designed biological forms. We will become branching selves, following many different paths at once for the adventure, the fun, and the love of it. Life in the real world presents extremely rich experiences, and uploaded intelligences in virtual worlds will come outside where they can fly as a falcon, sprint as a cheetah, love, play, or even just breath — with superhuman consciousness, no lag, and infinite bandwidth. People will dance with nature, in all its possible forms. And we'll kitesurf."
David Eagleman: Silicon immortality: downloading consciousness into computers: "While medicine will advance in the next half century, we are not on a crash-course for achieving immortality by curing all disease. Bodies simply wear down with use. We are on a crash-course, however, with technologies that let us store unthinkable amounts of data and run gargantuan simulations. Therefore, well before we understand how brains work, we will find ourselves able to digitally copy the brain's structure and able to download the conscious mind into a computer."
Robert Sapolsky: People who can intuit in six-dimensions: "The thing that is going to change everything will have to wait for, probably, our grandkids. It will come from their growing up with games and emergent networks and who knows what else that (obviously) we can't even imagine. And they'll be able to navigate that stuff as effortlessly as we troglodytes can currently change radio stations while driving while talking to a passenger. In other words, we're not going to get much out of these vast data sets until we have people who can intuit in six-dimensions. And then, watch out."
Bruce Parker: The successor to natural selection in humans: "But now, with the recent great advances in genetic engineering, we are in a position to change the human species for the first time in 50,000 years. We will be able to put new genes in any human egg or sperm we wish. The children born with these new genes will grow up and pass them on to their children. The extensive use of this genetic selection (or should we call it anthropogenic selection) will rapidly pass new genes and their corresponding (apparently desired) traits throughout the population. But what will be the overall consequence? When selecting particular genes that we want while perhaps not understanding how particular gene combinations work, might we unknowingly begin a process that could change our good human qualities? While striving for higher intelligence could we somehow genetically diminish our capacity for compassion, or our inherent need for social bonding? How might the human species be changed in the long run? The qualities that got us here — the curiosity, the intelligence, the compassion and cooperation resulting from our need for social bonding– involve an incredibly complex combination of genes. Could these have been produced through genetic planning?"
Jamshed Bharucha: The synchronization of brains: "Few behavioral forces are as strong as the delineation of in-groups and out-groups: 'us' and 'them'. Group affiliation requires alignment, coupling or synchronization of the brain states of members. Synchronization yields cooperative behavior, promotes group cohesion, and creates a sense of group agency greater than the sum of the individuals in the group. In the extreme, synchronization yields herding behavior. The absence of synchronization yields conflict."
Kevin Slavin: The ebb of memory: "For the next generation, it will be impossible to forget it, and harder to remember. What will change everything is our ability to remember what everything is. Was. And wasn’t."