Intelligent Design?

Reviewed by Joshua Foer
Sunday, June 12, 2005


The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- and What It Means to Be Human

By Joel Garreau. Doubleday. 384 pp. $26

Far-fetched as it may sound, the first person who will live to be 1,000 may already walk among us. The first computer that will think like a person may be built before today's kindergarteners graduate from college. By the middle of this century, we may be as blasé about genetically engineered humans as we are today about pierced ears. These sorts of predictions have a habit of sounding silly by the time they're supposed to come true, but there's a certain logic to them. Joel Garreau calls that logic "The Curve."

The Curve is the untamable force of exponential growth that propels technological progress. It's the compound interest on human ingenuity. The fact that computing power has doubled every 18 months, right on schedule, for the last four decades is a manifestation of The Curve. So is the rapid expansion of the Internet and the recent boom in genetic technologies. According to the inexorable logic of The Curve, if you want to get a sense of how radically our world will be transformed over the next century, the best guide will be looking back at how much things have changed, not over the past century, but over the past millennium.

Garreau, a reporter and editor at The Washington Post, has sought out the scientists who are driving The Curve's breakneck acceleration and the major thinkers who are contemplating its implications. His breezy, conversational book, full of mini-profiles and chatty asides, is a guide to the big ideas about the future of our species that are circulating at the beginning of the 21st century.

As he tramps around the country meeting futurists and technophiles, Garreau becomes acquainted with researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) who are trying to abolish sleep and invent cyborg soldiers. He meets "transhumanists" for whom genetic enhancement promises a kind of messianic salvation. He also meets naysayers who fear that all this so-called progress is far more likely to lead to auto-annihilation than to techno-bliss. Garreau lays out three alternative futures for our species: a happy ending that he calls the Heaven Scenario, a tragic ending he calls Hell and a middle scenario he calls Prevail, in which humans somehow manage to muddle through the ethical and technological jungle ahead without creating paradise on Earth or blowing ourselves up.

In the Heaven scenario, genetic engineering, robotics and nanotechnology make us happier, smarter, stronger and better-looking. Man and machine gradually meld as we transcend the physical limitations of our bodies and become immortal. Humans evolve into a new species of post-humans as different from us today as we are from chimps. We become like gods.

According to Vernor Vinge, one of several eccentric scientists whom Garreau interviews, The Curve will continue to get steeper and steeper until it eventually goes completely vertical in a rapturous moment he has dubbed "The Singularity." At some point this century, but probably no later than 2030, Vinge believes that humans will build the last machine we'll ever need -- a device so intelligent it will be able to reproduce rapidly and create new machines far smarter than humans could ever imagine. Practically overnight, our social order will rupture, and our world will be transformed. There's no guarantee that will be particularly pleasant.

Many of the thinkers Garreau interviews are less than sanguine about humanity's prospects. Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, warns that technology is empowering individuals to do evil on a scale never before imagined. A single rogue scientist will soon be able to engineer a plague capable of wiping out humankind. Even well-intentioned scientists could accidentally do something catastrophic, such as releasing a swarm of self-replicating nanobots that would suck the planet dry of energy -- turning the world into the "gray goo" of Michael's Crichton's fanciful novel Prey . In such a one-strike-and-you're-out world, it's hard to imagine we'd last very long.

Francis Fukuyama and Bill McKibben's Hell Scenarios are less apocalyptic. They fear that the coming technologies will upend societies and sap life of its meaning, gradually leading us into the dehumanized hell of a Brave New World. They'd like to manage The Curve through government regulation or by taking the Amish approach of forswearing objectionable technologies.

But just as inescapable as The Curve's upward trajectory may be humankind's uncanny knack for rolling with the punches. Garreau's Prevail scenario is "based on a hunch that you can count on humans to throw The Curve a curve." Even if technology seems to be a force out of control, we'll always find some way to direct it toward our desired ends, Garreau suspects. Jaron Lanier, the inventor of virtual reality, envisions a version of the Prevail scenario in which humans use technology to build tighter and tighter interpersonal relations. Our bodies become less important as our social bonds strengthen. The Internet, according to Lanier, is an early step down this path to global interconnectedness.

If these scenarios sound outlandish, that is only because it's hard to look so far into the future without getting whiplash. But Garreau argues that the stakes in thinking all this through are enormous. We "face the biggest change in tens of thousands of years in what it means to be human," he writes. It's an exhilarating adventure our species has embarked upon. It might be a little less terrifying if we knew where we were headed. ยท

Joshua Foer is a science writer living in Washington, D.C.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company