October 25, 2006
from Kurzweilai Website
Now after six million years of
evolution, where do we go next? How will evolution, our newly
arrived intellect, our primal drives and the powerful technologies
we continually create, change us?
Will we develop new brain modules, new
appendages, revamped capabilities just as we have over the past six
million years? Absolutely, but probably not in the way we suspect.
It appears, if we look closely, that
the DNA that has been such a perfect ally in the
evolution of life, may itself be in for a revamping. Evolution may
be prowling for a new partner. And the partner may be us, or at
least the technologies we make possible.
The job requires an amalgamation of high intelligence and emotion, conscious intent, primal drives and great quantities of knowledge made possible by minds that can communicate in highly complex ways. If you pulled any one of these out, the future, at least one involving intelligent, conscious creatures like us, would fall apart. It takes not just cleverness, but passion, sometimes fear, fired by focused intention, to create and invent.
Without this combination there would be
no technologies, no wheels or steam engines or nuclear bombs or
computers. And there would be nothing like the world we live in
today. At best we would still be huddled in the black African night,
eking out whatever existence the predators waiting in the darkness
around us would allow. Not even fire would be our friend.
The book, entitled
Mind Children, didn’t predict
that we would destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons or rampant,
self-inflicted diseases, or undo the species with self-replicating
nanotechnology. Instead, Moravec, who had an abiding and life-long
fascination with intelligent machines, predicted we would invent
ourselves out of existence, and robots would be the technology
We would manage this by boosting robots up the evolutionary ladder, roughly in decade-long increments, making them smarter, more mobile, more like us. First they would be as intelligent as insects or a simple guppy (we are about there right now), then lab rats, then monkeys and chimps until, finally one day, the machines would become more adept and adaptive than their makers.
That, of course, would quickly raise the question:
The unavoidable answer would be, yes.
Evolution will have found through us a
new way to make a new creature; one that could forsake its ladders
of DNA and the fragile, carbon-based biology that nature had been
using for nearly four million millennia to manage the job.
But Moravec’s scenario makes a point -
the world and the life upon it changes, and simply because we are
the agents of change, doesn’t mean we won’t be affected by it.
It is strange to think of the invention of machines, even robotic ones, as having anything to do with Darwin’s natural selection.
We usually regard evolution as biological - a world of cells, DNA and “living” creatures. And we think of our machines as unalive, unintelligent and shifted by economic forces more than natural ones. But it isn’t written anywhere that evolution has to be constrained by what we traditionally think of as biology. In fact each day the lines between biology and technology, humans and the machines we create are blurring.
We are already part and parcel of our
We regularly engineer genes, despite the raging debates over stem cell therapy. A human being will very likely be cloned within the next five years. We now have computer processors working at the nano (molecular) level and microelectromechanical machines (MEMS) that operate at cellular dimensions. Already electronic prosthetics make direct connections with human nerves, and electronic brain implants for Parkinson’s disease and weak hearts are common place. Scientists are even experimenting with electronic, implantable eyes.
New clothing weaves digital technologies
into their fiber and brings them a step closer to being a part of
us. The military are working on “battle-suits” that will fit like
gloves, a kind of second skin and amplify a soldier’s senses,
strength and ability to communicate, even triangulate the direction
of a bullet headed his or her way.
But it takes months or years to learn a new language or how to play the piano or master the art of engineering bridges and buildings.
Lynn Margulis, probably the world’s leading microbiologist, has argued that this blurring of technology and biology isn’t really all that new.
She has observed 1 that the shells of clams and snails are a kind of technology dressed in biological clothing. Is there really that much difference between the vast skyscrapers we build or the malls in which we shop, even the cars we drive around, and the hull of a seed?
Seeds and clam shells, which are not
alive, hold in them a little bit of water and carbon and DNA, ready
to replicate when the time is right, yet we don’t distinguish them
from the life they hold. Why should it be any different with office
buildings, hospitals and space shuttles?
The processes of evolution simply
witness new adaptations and preserve those that perform better than
others. That would make Homo habilis’s first flint knife a form of
biology as sure as a clamshell, one that set our ancestors on a
fresh evolutionary path just as if their DNA had been tweaked to
create a new, physical mutation, say an opposable thumb or a big
And on we went, continually and with
increasing speed and sophistication, fashioning progressively more
complex technologies right up to the genetic techniques that enable
us to fiddle with the self-same ribbons of our chromosomes that made
the brains that conceived tools in the first place. If this is true,
all of our technologies are an extension of us, and each human
invention is really another expression of biological evolution.
Scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil
has, like Moravec, pointed out that the rate of technological change
is increasing at an exponential rate. Also like Moravec, he foresees
machines as intelligent as we are evolving by mid century. Unlike
Moravec he doesn’t necessarily believe they will arrive in the form
In time (but pretty quickly) we will
reverse engineer the human brain into a vastly more powerful,
We will no longer be Homo sapiens,
but Cyber sapiens - a creature part digital and part
biological that will have placed more distance between its DNA and
the destinies they force upon us than any other animal. And we will
have become a creature capable of steering its own evolution
(“cyber” derives from the Greek word for a ship’s steersman or
navigator - kybernetes). The world will face an entirely new state
A planet with six and a half billion
creatures on it, traveling in flying machines every day by the
millions, their minds roped together by satellites and fiber optic
cable, rearranging molecules on the one hand and leveling continents
of rain forest on the other, growing food and shipping it overnight
by the trillions of tons - all of this is a far cry from the
hunter-gatherer, nomadic life for which evolution had fashioned us
200,000 years ago.
Evolution has presided over stranger
things. It took billions of years before the switching and swapping
of genes brought us into existence. Our particular brain then took
200,000 years to get us from running around in skins with stone
weapons to the world we live in today. Evolution is all about the
implausible. And the drive to survive is a relentless shaper of the
seemingly impossible. We ourselves are the best proof.
In some ways we can’t know the answer anymore than Homo erectus could imagine how his successors would someday create movies, invent computers and write symphonies.
Our progeny, our “mind children,” will certainly be more intelligent with brains that are both massively parallel, like the current version we have, and unimaginably fast.
Maybe they will have served their purpose and gone away...
We may face these questions sooner than
we imagine. The future gathers speed every day.
Maybe the best of those echoes will remain.
After all, as heavy as some baggage can
be, preserving a few select pieces might be a good thing, even if we
are freaks of nature.