[ContinUeD FRoM p. 112] are dismissed as “The Rest”; the poor dears, they
seem to just keep falling farther and
Everyone in your daughter’s law
school takes it as a matter of course
that the law they are studying is changing to match the new enhancements.
The law will be upgraded, the Enhanceds believe, just as they get new
physical and mental upgrades every
time they go home. In fact, the paper
your daughter is working on over the
holidays concerns whether a Natural
can truly enter into an informed relationship with an Enhanced, even for
something as innocuous as a date.
We are at a turning point in human
history. Today, for the first time in
hundreds of thousands of years, our
technologies are not only aimed outward at modifying our environment.
Rather, the GRIN technologies—the
genetic, robotic, information, and
nano processes, all based on computing technologies evolving at the pace
of Moore’s Law if not faster—
increasingly aim inward at changing who we
are and what we can be. Not in some
distant future but right now, on our
How might such radical evolution
influence what it means to be human?
Talk to those deploying the GRIN
technologies and you hear three scenarios—Heaven, Hell, and Prevail.
In “Heaven,” we conquer pain, suffering, ignorance, stupidity—even
death—in a perfection of the human
condition. In it, traditional definitions of humanity are increasingly
remote. There are few divisions like
those in your daughter’s law school
scenario because it’s so difficult to
remember why anyone would want
to cling to Version 1.0 humanity. Being a knowledge-based creature is far
preferable to being what Ray Kurzweil
calls “mostly original substrate humans.”
In “Hell,” pessimists see a mirror-image curve in which the power of
the GRIN technologies inevitably gets
into the hands of madmen or fools,
leading to disaster for all. If conflict
between different species of humans
doesn’t get us, then the genetically engineered microbes carefully designed
to be 100% fatal or the self-replicating
energy-devouring nanobots will. The
even in the face
reflects faith that
the ragged human
convoy of divergent
humor will wend
its way to glory.
outcomes are the same—annihilation
of the human race within 20 years. Entirely too imaginable.
Both Heaven and Hell are tech-nodeterministic, assuming that our
gear shapes history. In neither is your
daughter able to do much to shape
her generation’s future. The critical
driver is the smooth curve of Moore’s
Law, measuring progress by the number of transistors we get to talk to one
As a humanist, however, I root for
“Prevail,” which is not some middle
ground between Heaven and Hell.
Way off in its own territory, it assumes
what really matters is not how many
transistors we connect but how many
ornery, cussed, imaginative, unpredictable humans we connect. Its measure is not individuals bragging about
their latest cognitive implants, leaving your daughter and others like her
frightened and lonely, but something
far larger, measured in group transformation.
How do we know which scenario we
are entering? Heaven and Hell both
have the virtue of being obvious. We
see bellwethers in the headlines every
day. But suppose you see second-order
network effects—group effects. Could
they be early warnings of Prevail? Suppose you’ve seen cellphones going
from curiosity to commonplace in 30
years. There are now more than one of
them for every two humans on earth—
the fastest uptake of any technology
in history, including the polio vaccine. Suppose as a result you see some
of the greatest economic and social
transformations in some of the most
unexpected places, from Bangladesh
to Nigeria. I am, of course, describing
If the harbingers of Prevail are the
appearance of many collaborative,
bottom-up, worldwide human solutions, what do they say about eBay?
Not just the world’s biggest flea market but a network of millions of people
producing highly complex solutions
without leaders. Facebook causes us
to reconsider the meaning of such a
basic human institution as “friend.”
YouTube recently helped shape the
most interesting election in a lifetime. And what about Twitter?
Prevail embraces uncertainty. Even
in the face of unprecedented threats,
it reflects faith that the ragged human convoy of divergent perceptions,
piqued honor, posturing, insecurity,
and humor will wend its way to glory.
The embedded assumption is that
even if a smooth curve of exponential
change describes the future of technology, it will not map onto the messy
world of human fortunes.
Prevail is driven by faith in human
cussedness, based on a hunch that
you can count on humans to throw
The Curve of exponential change a
curve of their own. It is also a belief
that transcendence resulting from
humans taking control of their own
evolution is unlikely to be part of any
The significance of all this can
hardly be understated. Despite the
billions of galaxies, each with billions
of stars, we cannot detect any other
life in the universe. Why not? Perhaps every intelligent species eventually takes control of its own evolution.
Maybe such radical evolution is the
final exam. Maybe everyone else has
Let’s not flunk, too.
Joel Garreau ( www.garreau.com) is the author of
Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing
Our Minds, Our Bodies—and What It Means to Be Human.
© 2009 acm 0001-0782/09/0300 $5.00