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Features

Technotopia & the Death of Nature

Clones, Supercomputers, and Robots

There is no question that technological growth trends in science and industry are increasing exponentially. There is, however, a growing debate about what this runaway acceleration of ingenuity may bring. A number of respected scientists and futurists now are predicting that technological progress is driving the world toward a "Singularity" – a point at which technology and nature will have become one. At this juncture, the world as we have known it will have gone extinct and new definitions of "life," "nature" and "human" will take hold.

"We are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth," San Diego University Professor of Computer Science Vernor Vinge first warned the scientific community in 1993. "Within 30 years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will end."

Some scientists and philosophers have theorized that the very purpose of life is to bring about the Singularity. While leading technology industries have been aware of the Singularity concept for some time, there are concerns that, if the public understood the full ramifications of the Singularity, they would be reluctant to accept many of the new and untested technologies such as genetically engineered foods, nano-technology and robotics.

Machine Evolution
A number of books on the coming Singularity are in the works and will soon appear. In 2003, the sequel to the blockbuster film The Matrix will delve into the philosophy and origins of Earth's machine-controlled future. Matrix cast members were required to read Wired editor Kevin Kelly's 1994 book Out of Control: The Rise of Neo-biological Civilization. Page one reads, "The realm of the born – all that is nature – and the realm of the made – all that is humanly constructed – are becoming one."

Meanwhile, Warner Brothers has embarked on the most expensive film of all time – a $180 million sequel called Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. The film is due out in 2003; a good decade before actual machine evolution is predicted to accelerate "out of control," plunging human civilization towards the Singularity.

Central to the workings of the Singularity are a number of "laws" - one of which is known as Moore's Law. Intel Corp. cofounder Gordon E. Moore noted that the number of transistors that could fit on a single computer chip had doubled every year for six years from the beginnings of integrated circuits in 1959. Moore predicted that the trend would continue, and it has – although the doubling rate was later adjusted to an 18-month cycle.

Today, millions of circuits are found on a single miniscule computer chip and technological "progress" is accelerating at an exponential rather than a linear growth rate.

Stewart Brand, in his book The Clock of the Long Now, discusses another law – Monsanto's Law – which states that the ability to identify and use genetic information doubles every 12 to 24 months. This exponential growth in biological knowledge is transforming agriculture, nutrition and healthcare in the emerging life-sciences industry.

In 2005, IBM plans to introduce "Blue Gene," a computer that can perform one million-billion calculations-per-second – about 1/20th the power of the human brain. This computer could transmit the entire contents of the Library of Congress in less than two seconds. According to Moore's Law, computer hardware will surpass human brainpower in the first decade of this century. Software that emulates the human mind - "artificial intelligence" – may take a few more years to evolve.

Reaching Infinity
The human population also is experiencing tremendous exponential population growth. Dan Eder, a scientist at the Boeing Artificial Intelligence Center, notes that "human population growth over the past 10,000 years has been following a hyperbolic growth trend... with the asymptote [or the point of near-infinite increase] located in the year 2035 AD." An infinite number of humans is, of course, impossible. Scientists predict our numbers will hover around 9 billion by mid-century.

Eder points out that the predicted rise of artificial intelligence coincides with the asymptote of human population growth. He speculates that artificial life could begin to multiply exponentially once biological life has met its finite limits.

Scientists are debating not so much if it will happen, but what discovery will set off a series of Earth-altering technologic events. They suggest that advancements in the fields of nanotechnology or the discovery of artificial intelligence could usher in the Singularity.

Technologic Globalization
Physicists, mathematicians and scientists like Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil have identified through their accelerated technological change theories the likely boundaries of the Singularity and have predicted with confidence the effects leading up to it over the next couple of decades.

The majority of people closest to these theories and laws – the tech sector – can hardly wait for the Singularity to arrive. The true believers call themselves "extropians," "post-humans" and "transhumanists" and are actively organizing not just to bring the Singularity about, but to counter what they call "techno-phobes" and "neo-luddites" – critics like Greenpeace, Earth First! and the Rainforest Action Network.

The Progress Action Coalition [Pro-Act, www.progressaction.org], which was formed in June 2001, fantasizes about "the dream of true artificial intelligence... adding a new richness to the human landscape never before known." The Pro-Act website features several sections where the strategies and tactics of environmental groups and foundations are targeted for "countering."

Pro-Act, AgBioworld, Biotechnology Progress, Foresight Institute, the Progress Freedom Foundation and other industry groups that desire accelerated scientific progress acknowledge that the greatest threat to technologic progress comes not just from environmental groups, but from a small faction of the scientific community – where one voice stands out.

The Warning
In April 2000, a wrench was thrown into the arrival of the Singularity by an unlikely source – Sun Microsystems' Chief Scientist Bill Joy. Joy co-founded Sun Microsystems, helped create the Unix computer operating system and developed the Java and Jini software systems – systems that helped give the Internet "life."

In a now-infamous cover story in Wired magazine, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," Joy warned of the dangers posed by developments in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics. Joy's warning of the impacts of exponential technologic progress run amok gave new credence to the coming Singularity. Unless things change, Joy predicted, "We could be the last generation of humans." Joy has warned that "knowledge alone will enable mass destruction" and termed this phenomenon "knowledge-enabled mass destruction" (KMD).

The Times of London compared Joy's statement to Einstein's 1939 letter to President Roosevelt, which warned of the dangers of the nuclear bomb.

The technologies of the 20th century gave rise to nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) technologies that, while powerful, require access to vast amounts of raw (and often rare) materials, technical information and large-scale industries. The 21st century technologies of genetics, nanotechnology and robotics (GNR) however, will require neither large facilities nor rare raw materials.

The threat posed by GNR technologies becomes further amplified by the fact that some of these new technologies have been designed to be able to "replicate" – i.e., they can build new versions of themselves. Nuclear bombs did not sprout more bombs and toxic spills did not grow more spills. If the new self-replicating GNR technologies are released into the environment, they could be nearly impossible to recall or control.

Globalization and Singularity
Joy understands that the greatest dangers we face ultimately stem from a world where global corporations dominate – a future where much of the world has no voice in how the world is run. The 21st century GNR technologies, he writes, "are being developed almost exclusively by corporate enterprises. We are aggressively pursuing the promises of these new technologies within the now-unchallenged system of global capitalism and its manifold financial incentives and competitive pressures."

Joy believes that the system of global capitalism, combined with our current rate of progress, gives the human race a 30 to 50 percent chance of going extinct around the time the Singularity happens. "Not only are these estimates not encouraging," he adds, "but they do not include the probability of many horrid outcomes that lie short of extinction."

Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen contends that if chemists earlier in the last century had decided to use bromine instead of chlorine to produce commercial coolants (a mere quirk of chemistry), the ozone hole over Antarctica would have been far larger, would have lasted all year and would have severely affected life on Earth. "Avoiding that was just luck," stated Crutzen.

It is very likely that scientists and global corporations will miss key developments (or, worse, actively avoid discussion of them). A whole generation of biologists has left the field for the biotech and nanotech labs. As biologist Craig Holdredge, who has followed biotech since its early beginnings in the 1970s, warns: The science of "biology is losing its connection with nature."

Yet there is something missing from this discussion of the technologic singularity. The true cost of technologic progress and the Singularity will mean the unprecedented decline of the planet's inhabitants – an ever-increasing rate of global extinction.

The World Conservation Union (IUCN), the International Botanical Congress and a majority of the world's biologists believe that a global "mass extinction" already is underway. As a direct result of human activity (resource extraction, industrial agriculture, the introduction of non-native animals and population growth), up to one-fifth of all living species – mostly in the tropics – are expected to disappear within 30 years. "The speed at which species are being lost is much faster than any we've seen in the past – including those related to meteor collisions," University of Tennessee biodiversity expert Daniel Simberloff told the Washington Post.

A 1998 Harris poll of the 5,000 members of the American Institute of Biological Sciences found 70 percent believed that what has been termed "The Sixth Extinction" is now underway. A simultaneous Harris poll found that 60 percent of the public were totally unaware of the impending biological collapse.

At the same time that nature's ancient biological creation is on the decline, artificial laboratory-created bio-tech life forms - genetically modified tomatoes, genetically engineered salmon, cloned sheep – are on the rise. Already more than 60 percent of food in US grocery stores contain genetically engineered ingredients – and that percentage is rising.

Nature and technology are not just evolving: They are competing and combining with one another. Ultimately there could be only one winner.

Resources

  • The Foresight Institute's [www.foresight.org] May 2000 conference on "Confronting Singularity" prompted Bill Joy to issue his famous warning about technology's threat to human survival.
  • Ray Kurzweil's website: www.kurzweilai.net
  • "The Campaign for a Post-Human World," Richard Hayes, Earth Island Journal, Spring 2001.


James Bell is a writer for Sustain, a national environmental information group based in Chicago [www.sustain.info].This article is excerpted from his forthcoming book. For more information visit www.technologicalsingularity.info or contact jamesbell@sustainusa.org. An earlier version of this article was published in the Samhain (November/December 2001) issue of the Earth First! Journal. (c) 2001 by James Bell.

   

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