Book World Live
"Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- and What It Means to Be Human"

Joel Garreau
Author
Tuesday, June 14, 2005 3:00 PM

"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 blase 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." -- Intelligent Design? (Book World, June 12)

Joel Garreau , a reporter and editor at The Washington Post, has sought out the scientists who are driving that logic and the thinkers who are contemplating its implications in his book, "Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- and What It Means to Be Human." He was online Tuesday, June 14, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss the above predictions and his book.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.

A transcript follows.

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Joel Garreau: Glad to be here today.

"Radical Evolution" is about the biggest change in 10,000 years in what it means to be human. We are at a turning point in history. For the first time in millennia, our technologies are not so much aimed outward, in the fashion of fire, clothes, agriculture, cities, and space travel. Instead, they are increasingly aimed inward at modifying our minds, memories, metabolisms, personalities, progeny, and possibly our souls.

This is happening not in some distant future, but on our watch. We can already see the outlines of this change today in the memory drugs that will be on the market in the next three to five years, as well as the drugs like modafinil that shut off the human trigger to sleep. In the next five to 15 years it will become increasingly unavoidable because of the exponentially increasing change in what I call the GRIN technologies -- the genetics, robotics, information and nano processes.

I actually don't care that much about the gear, however. What I'm interested in is where this takes the future of human nature.

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Springfield, Va.: Your article literally stopped me in my tracks, because it summarized so much of what I personally believe about the future of humanity -- that we have the potential to be masters of our own destiny and creators of our own immortality.

Did any of the thinkers and scientists you interviewed have opinions about the role of ethics and religion in the years to come? Given the current debates raging over such comparatively clear-cut scientific issues such as evolution, I worry about what other progress might be checked by extremists acting on behalf of "God".

Remember the "Plan B" article the Post ran on May 12th, in which new information suggested that the FDA may have yielded to conservative pressure in overruling an advisory board's application to make an emergency contraception more easily accessible? W. David Hager, an evangelical doctor serving on the panel, wrote a memo to the FDA commissioner asking them to overturn their 23-to-4 (in favor) decision. Here's the quote the same article from Hager's subsequent video-taped "sermon":

" 'I argued from a scientific perspective, and God took that information, and he used it through this minority report to influence the decision,' Hager said. 'Once again, what Satan meant for evil, God turned into good.' "

Did anyone from your book express any concerns about such medieval views being alive and well in the upper echelons of the American government in the 21st century?

Joel Garreau: great question.

the conversation that exists today about how we are about to take charge of our own human evolution through engineered means is occurring largely among the techies.

that's why i've been typing as fast as i can. i think our first task is to understand what these technologies amount to, in terms of changing what it means to be human. this conversation has got to move out to the liberal arts majors, the religious, whomever.

i offer three scenarios for where these changes will take us as humans -- "heaven," "hell," and "prevail."

in "heaven," the curve of change goes straight up, and history is locked into it. in this scenario we fix pain, suffering, stupidity, ignorance, ugliness and even death, and it's all good. in fact, the people who project this scenario paint a picture that looks a lot like the christian version of heaven, and it begins to occur on our watch -- in the next five to 25 years. serious people are taking this scenario seriously, including people at the national science foundation.

in the "hell" scenario, these same technologies allow bad people to inflict extreme evil. the extreme version of this is that we extinct the human species -- if not every living thing on earth -- within 25 years. the slightly lesser version of this is that by changing what it means to be human, we destroy institutions about which we care a great deal -- like democracy. again, serious people take this scenario seriously, people like the famed inventor bill joy, or the public intellectual frank fukuyama, author of "our posthuman future."

the scenario i would like to hope is possible, however, is the "prevail" scenario. in that, human history is not necessarily technologically determined. our culture and values can shape our future, rather than humans simply being along for the ride.

in this scenario, i can imagine lots of different thoughts about what it means to be human contributing to us figuring out the many paths that might turn out to be pragmatic. i wouldn't doubt for a moment that religious people will make great contributions to this.

i don't see faith and reason as being antithetical. people who want us to choose up sides between one or the other are not making a useful contribution to our futures, in my view.

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Austin, Tex.: How does "radical evolution" fit in with research into plain old evolution that we study in biology classes? It almost seems as though the creationists might be vindicated ... Will we soon have a demonstration project showing how to create man, animals, etc., in seven days or less?

Joel Garreau: my definition of "evolution" is pretty standard -- a variation that is inheritable that confers reproductive advantage.

i think we're headed into the third kind of evolution. the first kind was biological evolution -- the darwin stuff. that was in command of change up until about 8,000 years ago.

then with reading and writing, we figured out a way to store and retrieve the intelligence of the succeeding billions of humans, and that gave us civilization or "cultural evolution." that rapidly accelerated the pace of change, so that we went to the roman empire in several thousand years, and then the industrial age in 1800 years, and the information age in 180 years. (along the way we got from the wright brothers to the moon in 66 years. talk about picking up the pace.)

"radical evolution" is the third kind of evolution -- the kind that we engineer ourselves. it means changing our cognition, our memory, our children, our metabolisms, our personalities. i don't see how you can make changes like that in the next ten or 20 years, at an ever-increasing pace, and not have it change what it means to be human.

the last time we saw changes like this was 25,000 or 50,000 years ago, when today's humans began to live in the same world as the cro-magnons or neanderthals.

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Washington, D.C.: What are some other predictions about the future can you make?

Joel Garreau: i don't make predictions. i just report what's in the lab that could make a big difference in our lives if it works.

for example, the defense advanced research projects agency is the pentagon's research and development arm. they are at the forefront of human enhancement. they are working on allowing you to stay awake for a week, as alert and fresh as someone who is well rested. think of what that will do to ups, federal express, and medical residents.

they are working on allowing you to live off the fat stored in your body for up to a week. think what that will do to the $40 billion a year diet industry.

they are working on allowing you to regrow blown off appendages, like salamanders. think what that could do for mastectomy patients.

there are lots more.

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Fairfax, Va.: Do you think someone is cloning a human being right now somewhere in the world?

Joel Garreau: sure. south korea. cloned human embryos have already happened.

but those are for stem cell purposes. your question, of course, is a clone being allowed to develop to term and be born.

i don't think there's going to be a big market for that. i don't think many people are going to want to clone themselves.

although i think technically there's not much standing in the way.

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Chicago, Ill.: I'm specifically interested in the current rise of "identity" subcultures -- for example, some people believing that they're not entirely "human", that they are throwbacks or half/multi-breeds in some way with other kinds of beings, have animal spirits, can feed off energy directly, etc. Do you think that this has a connection to your own observations on evolution?

Joel Garreau: no. i'm a rationalist and a pragmatist and a reporter. "radical evolution" doesn't report on people who have feelings that may or may not be true, but which people would have the devil's own time demonstrating empirically.

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Deming, N.M.: Do you have any comment on the theories that the biblical references to people being several hundreds of years in age may in fact have been factually correct and that it is since those times that the average life span has decreased to under 100 years?

Joel Garreau: i think the biblical references to very long life are matters of faith. i have no idea how you would prove that empirically.

having said that, i think we are looking at great increases in longevity in the near future. i mean, if you sequence the human genome, do you think that will have an influence on medicine? if so, how could that not have an effect on longevity?

and this is not about having people last for a very long time drooling on their shoes. this is about staying hale and hearty for unprecedented periods.

people magazine just had a "desperate housewives" star turning 40, and they said, isn't that weird? a sex pot at 40? she replied, no, "40 is the new 30."

you also hear people talk about "80 being the new 60," because it's increasingly common to hear of great-grandparents up and taking off to walk the great wall of china.

the new technologies offer great promise to extend such vitality. i mean, viagra is just the tip of the iceberg.

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Washington, D.C.: Is it possible for a computer to be smarter than a person?

Joel Garreau: wow what a great and important question.

the answer to that is a big part of both the "heaven" and "hell" scenarios.

"Blue Gene/L" is an ibm supercomputer that's state of the art right now. when it's fully developed soon, it is supposed to have the same raw processing power as a human brain.

it will be able to do amazing things, like model the climate, and unravel how our proteins work. but will that make it smart? not to my way of thinking.

so the question is what do you mean smart? having loves? telling lies? seeing patterns amid chaos?

being smart is way more than sheer processing power.

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Bethesda, Md.: But in order for all these things to happen, aren't we talking about drugs and not just body upkeep? If so, will the drugs be widely available? Won't the world turn into drug addled zombies?

Joel Garreau: drug addled zombies is definitely part of the "hell" scenario.

i'm offering three ways of seeing how this could all turn out. one of these could be very, very bad, and i take that scenario seriously. but there are the two others that i also take seriously -- "heaven" and "prevail."

the key thing is to get this discussion out from the province of the "experts" and into the realm of real people.

for example, at darpa, they can quite clearly see how you would accomplish mind-to-mind communication via computer that would appear to the uninitiated to be an awful lot like telepathy.

what you don't get from these scientists, however, is much thinking about what having a world full of people with the apparently ability to communicate mind-to-mind would be like.

that's where we come in. this is where culture and values has got to take over and suggest how we want to shape our futures.

remember, this is going to get pretty hairy pretty quick. this is not hundreds of years off. it's in the working lives of we who are typing this stuff today.

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Arlington,va: Do you think the end of the age of fossil fuels will have any effect on the technological future ?

PeakOil.com

Joel Garreau: i think the other way around is more interesting -- will this techological future have a role in the end of age of fossil fuels.

i can't imagine that it wouldn't.

i mean, the stone age didn't end because of lack of stones. neither will the petroleum age end because of lack of petroleum, is my bet.

already, the reason we're not in worse shape than we are is that the oil companies are using supercomputers to give the earth the equivalent of an mri -- seeing beneath the surface in color and three-dimensions, to better "see" where to explore.

alternatives like hydrogen are all about technology.

so is making the electrical system radically more efficient by using nanotubes instead of wires.

the critical question in "prevail" is whether we will co-evolve. it's child's play to show that our challenges are increasing exponentially. the question is whether our solutions are also increasing to keep pace.

there's some reason for guarded optimism.

for example, on 9/11, the fourth plane never made it to its target. why? because the air force was so good? no. because the white house was so smart? no. it's because dozens of ordinary people -- enabled by their cell phone technologies -- figured out, diagnosed, and cured their civilization's problems in 60 minutes flat, and at enormous cost to themselves.

the question is whether we will continue to invent new solutions to keep pace.

think of the printing press. the dark ages were full of problems for human that seemed insurmountable. with the printing press, sharing human wisdom became immeasureably easier. the result was things like global trade, and the enlightenment which lead to democracy and science itself. suddenly, these new solutions that were beyond the understanding or control of any one person or any one country opened up new vistas -- and of course new problems.

the question is whether we can create new opportunities like this right now.

the key element here

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Washington, D.C.: Could such a smart computer, as you mentioned, somehow take over on its own, like HAL did in 2001?

Joel Garreau: you'll find people in both the "heaven" and "hell" scenarios who think so. the people who welcome this think that such devices will be our devoted servants. in fact, many of them think that we will increasingly merge with them. (this is already starting, in a primitive way. profoundly deaf people have cochlear implants that are a direct link between a computer and nerve endings, making them a real combination of the made and the born. just hitting the market are similar implants that allow the blind to see.)

this could give us unprecedented powers.

obviously, this could also go the other way. which would be worse? a super machine thinking that we were pests? or pets?

i'm not advocating these scenarios, but i am saying that there are a lot of serious scientists who are talking about this right now.

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Alexandria, Va.: This is heavy stuff. What got you interested in this type of thing? Are you on TV, NOVA or something?

Joel Garreau: i'm a washington post reporter and editor in the style section. my area of interest is culture and values -- who we are, how we got that way, where we're headed and what makes us tick.

from time to time i stand at different windows on the human endeavor to see what light it reflects on us. this time, that window was technology, but as i say, i'm not a gear freak. i don't really care how many transistors we can hook up. my area of interest is in how we can increase the density and quality of connections between people.

which is also at the heart of the "prevail" scenario, btw.

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Laurel, Md.: Do solutions to problems like poverty enter into your scenarios? What is the correlation between human wisdom/compassion to evolution?

Joel Garreau: great question.

there are a couple of possibilities here. the bad one would be that we start to divide up into three kinds of humans -- the Enhanced, the Naturals, and The Rest.

the enhanced would be people with the money and ambition to embrace all of these technologies that make them faster, smarter, longer lived, more beautiful, more fit, etc. etc.

the naturals would be people who have access to these technologies, but choose not to indulge, like today's vegetarians.

the rest would be those who for reasons of money or geography don't have access to these technologies, and envy and despise those who do.

history shows that when different species compete for the same niche, bad things usually happen to one of them.

on the other hand, such a split does not have to occur. because the curve of technological change is causing the genetic, robotic, information and nano technologies to drop in price so fast, they are getting to the underdeveloped world much faster than previous technologies like refrigeration, radio, tv, or cars. already, there are 30 african nations with more cell phones than land lines. filipinos have already overthrown a tyrant by using text messaging on their cell phones to organize demonstrations in the streets that brought hundreds of thousands of people out in half an hour.

it's possible that these technologies could close distances between people as much as they increase them. for example, the handicapped are among the most technologically dependent people on earth. an awful lot of these technologies will go first to them.

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Washington, D.C.: We've opened so many Pandora's boxes we're having a difficult time stuffing those hellions back in the box. Nuclear weapons, development of germ warfare, even genetic engineering can get us deep into that hellish scenario you write about in your book. Science cannot go back to that state of innocence since it's all available and accessible. So unless we educate people with a set of moral values, we're sunk. A clone Dr. Frankenstein type may appear and undermine all that we cherish. Help.

Joel Garreau: the only help i see is if we help ourselves. seriously. this is the point i keep hitting. first, we've got to get this conversation out from the provence of the "experts" and the "elite." let's realize what is in our very near future, and start understanding it, so we can vote, and shape market forces, and most of all, invent new solutions.

i could be wrong, but i doubt we're going to be rescued by any top-down approach -- any collection of wise or powerful people. i think this is going to happen from the bottom up -- millions of ordinary people, linked in ways that we're available a generation ago, solving one problem at a time.

now having said that, remember that we are right now living in one of the least likely scenarios of the 20th century. we've gone 60 years without popping a nuclear weapon in anger. this could of course all change tomorrow. but it's still pretty remarkable. in 1955 nobody would have given you the proverbial plugged nickel for the chances of that being true in 2005.

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College Park, Md.: Will the Internet continue to grow and what will it become?

Joel Garreau: barring some calamity that destroys civilization, the internet shows every sign of doubling and redoubling in size every few months. (as does the number of computers. there are already more processors in the average new family car than there are light bulbs.)

we're getting to the point where we are giving an awful lot of things intelligence. for example, there are now chips buried in shipments to wal mart of -- i am not making this up -- Preparation H, that can broadcast where the pallet is, what's in it, and where it is supposed to be going.

the network effects of this will be remarkable as we get unexpected effects. i mean, you take the military internet of the 1980s -- could you have imagined that soon it would result in E-Bay? Much less Google?

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Arlington, Va.: I congratulate you on your optimism, but you say

"think of the printing press. The dark ages were full of problems for humans that seemed insurmountable"

as if there was only one "dark age". There have been countless, depending on how you define a 'civilization'. Most that I am aware of were triggered by some sort of overshoot. A resource is discovered that allows a population to expand exponentially beyond the sustainable carrying capacity and when that resource begins decline, there is a contraction or elimination of the civilization. Easter Island is probably the most famous, but there are thousands of examples. To be sure, life continues and can rebound even stronger but that doesn't mean that during the dark age it isn't pretty.

Joel Garreau: agreed. remember, i keep saying, there is this "hell" scenario, and it could be one that this civilization doesn't bounce back from. it could be that bad. and we want to take it real seriously, if for no other reason than to attempt to avoid it.

the best definition of an optimist i ever heard is "someone who's still engaged in the problem." if you buy that, then sure, i'm at least a guarded optimist, i guess.

but i don't think i'm somebody who isn't looking some of these horrors straight in the eye.

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Reston, Va.: Facinating, although not surprising revelations about what DARPA is working on. A pill that allows you to function without sleep: clear military applications. I wonder if that would create a culture (along with the other body/mind "enhancing" drugs/tools) of a split culture. One that embraces the new developments and uses them (to whatever good or bad ends) to their advantage, and the new "luddite" who refuses to "enhance" and therefore eventually gets passed by. The 2025 equivalent of someone not wanting to get a cell phone, or use a computer might be the someone who refuses to work 24/7 or attach a computer/robotic device to themselves for productivity enhancement. Facinating.

Joel Garreau: yeah, that would be the scenario in which you get the Enhanced, the Naturals, and The Rest.

i hope there won't be clear cut distinctions, however. i hope it might be more like the way tall people and short people don't war with each other because there is more of a continuum about this.

(i go into this quite a bit in the "Transcend" chapter, btw.)

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Munich, Germany: When I think of all the stories I've read that mankind would be traveling the stars and discovering new, inhabitable planets by this time, I begin to wonder how much of your predictions will come true.

For every invention, there seem to be more elements to be solved, such as how to send man into lengthy deep space missions without osteoporosis.

Joel Garreau: again, i don't make predictions. i just report what is in development right now. that's amazing enough. i don't have to pump this stuff up.

there are some distinct categories into which bad predictions

fall:

A(e enterprise turned out to be a lot more complicated than it sounded.

This is why we don't have robotic maids, or electricity from

nuclear fusion, or an explanation for what causes cancer.

A(e cost/benefit ratio never worked out. This is why we don't have

vacation hotels in orbit.

A(e future was overtaken by new technologies. This is why automotive

standard equipment does not include CB radios.

@¡d experience inoculated us against the plan. This is why there are so

few new nuclear fission power plants.

And most important:

@nventors fundamentally misunderstood human behavior. This is why we

have so few paperless offices.

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Alabama: Assuming we can reach Methuselah status, is there anything known about biology or biochemistry that would suggest what kind of a life it would be? As much as I'd like to see 3005, I wouldn't want the previous 500 years to be a painful slog.

Joel Garreau: nobody wants a life in which we are geezers drooling on our shoes.

if we can't use these technologies to actually open new vistas, what's the point?

(i for one, hope that somebody i'll have enough time to learn to play the bag pipes. that's my personal hope for my human enhancement. not that the neighbors will agree wit that definition of enhancement, i suppose.)

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Washington, D.C.: )-Oh. I am a Preparation H user and now you tell me I have a chip up my xxxx? Thank heavens I'm an old geezer with very little information to provide. Unless they found out about me and my nurse.

Joel Garreau: talk about an unintended consequence of technology!

what a great way to end this conversation.

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