Technotopia: Clones, Supercomputers, & Robots

Self-Replicating Atomic-Size Machines


Another cutting-edge field of research with an exponential growth rate is nanotechnology - the science of building “machines” out of atoms. A nanometer is a distance one-hundredth-thousandth the width of human hair. The goal of this science is to change the atomic fabric of matter - to engineer “machine-like atomic structures” that reproduce like living matter.

In this respect, it is similar to biotechnology, except that nanotechnology needs to literally create something like the non-organic version of DNA to drive the building of its tiny machines.

As University of Texas Professor Angela Belcher explains, “We’re working out the rules of biology in a realm where nature hasn’t had the opportunity to work.” Belcher is combining genetically modified proteins with semiconductors in the hope of using proteins to do the “building” of the non-living nanostructure. The technique is a hybrid of biotechnology and nanotechnology. What would take millions of years to evolve on its own, “takes about three weeks on the bench top,” says Belcher.

Machine progress is knocking down the barriers between all the sciences. Chemists, biologists, engineers and physicists are now finding themselves collaborating on experimental research. This collaboration is best illustrated by the opening of Cornell University’s Nanobiotechnological Center and other such facilities around the world. These scientists predict a breakthrough around 2005 to 2015 that will open the way to molecular-size computing - allowing for exponential technologic progress to race toward infinity.

Signs of the ‘Coming Singularity’
By Gar Smith

Some of the scientific “breakthroughs” expected in the next few years promise to make cloning and xenotransplantation (the introduction of genes from one species into another) seem rather benign. At least when scientists plant a spider gene in a goat or insert pig cells into a human brain, they are dealing with all-natural ingredients.
In the Brave New World of the Coming Singularity, the merging of technology and nature has already yielded some disturbing progeny. Consider these examples:

  • Human embryos have been successfully implanted and grown in artificial wombs. (The experiments were halted after a few days to avoid violating in-vitro fertilization regulations.)
  • Researchers in Israel have fashioned a “bio-computer” out of DNA that is capable of handling a billion operations-per-second with 99.8 percent accuracy. Reuters reports that these bio-computers are so minute that “a trillion of them could fit in a test tube.”
  • IBM has built a video screen whose images appear so true-to-life that “the human eye finds [the video images] indistinguishable from the real thing.”
  • In England, University of Reading Professor Kevin Warwick has implanted microchips in his body to remotely monitor and control his physical motions. During Warwick’s Project Cyborg experiments, computers were able to remotely monitor his movements and open doors at his approach.
  • Engineers at the US Sandia National Labs have built a remote-controlled spy robot equipped with a TV scanner, microphone and a chemical micro-sensor. The robot weighs one ounce and is smaller than a dime. Lab scientists predict that the micro-bot could prove invaluable in protecting “US military and economic interests.”
  • US scientists have built a machine that, when released into the environment, powers itself by feeding on the bodies of snails and other living creatures.
  • In April 2001, scientists built a robotic fish that was guided by the brain of an eel. The Washington Post heralded the grotesque achievement with the headline: “Scientists Start to Fuse Tissue and Technology in Machines.”
  • In February 2001, MIT researchers successfully tested a robotic fish controlled by a microprocessor and powered by the muscle tissues stripped from a frog.

Vernon Vinge’s Vision
By Gar Smith

The nonprofit Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (SIAI) [] exists “to bring about the Singularity - the technological creation of greater-than-human intelligence.” SIAI believes that the creation of “computer-based ‘artificial intelligence’ [will]... result in an immediate, worldwide and material improvement to the human condition.”

Vernon Vinge, the originator of the Singularity concept, is not so sanguine. “When greater-than-human intelligence drives progress, that progress will be much more rapid,” Vinge conceded during his famous 1993 speech at a NASA symposium. “We can solve many problems thousands of times faster than natural selection.”

“How bad could the Post-Human era be?” Vinge wondered. “Well… pretty bad. The physical extinction of the human race is one possibility.” Another possibility he proposed was that, “given all that such technology can do, perhaps governments would simply decide that they no longer need citizens!

“The first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make (provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control).” Because ultra-intelligent machines could design even better machines, Vinge predicted an “intelligence explosion” in the near future.

“A central feature of strongly superhuman entities will likely be their ability to communicate at variable bandwidths - including ones far higher than speech or written messages.”

But there is more to the human being than mere computational intelligence. Without emotion, empathy, compassion and a moral sense, raw intelligence can be a dangerous thing. As Ishi, the last surviving member of California’s indigenous Yahi nation observed: “White people are clever, but they are not wise.”

When the Singularity occurs, Vinge said, it could happen “in the blink of an eye - an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control…. It will probably occur faster than any technical revolution seen so far…. Even if all the governments of the world were to understand the threat and be in deadly fear of it,” Vinge warned, “progress toward the goal would continue.”

“The problem is not simply that the Singularity represents the passing of humankind from center stage,” Vinge concluded, “but that it contradicts our most deeply held notions of being.

“There are other paths to superhumanity,” Vinge suggested. “Computer networks and human-computer interfaces… could lead to the Singularity.” Vinge call this alternative to Artificial Intelligence “Intelligence Amplification.”

Ray Kurzweil’s Vision
By Gar Smith

Computer pioneer Ray Kurzweil is the winner of the world’s largest prize for invention - the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize - and was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President Clinton in 2000. He is the author of The Age of Intelligent Machines (MIT Press, 1990) and The Age of Spiritual Machines (Viking 1999). In his latest book, The Singularity Is Near, Kurzweil predicts that the final merging of “biological” and “artificial” intelligence will occur before the end of this century.

“The rate of technical progress is itself accelerating,” Kurzweil observes. But while people are quick to recognize this fact, “very few people have really internalized the implications of that prediction.” Industrialized societies are now doubling their rate of technological progress every 10 years. That means the 21st century will experience the equivalent of “20,000 years of progress” in a century, Kurzweil notes. “You get to a point where the rate of progress is so fast that it’s virtually a rupture in the fabric of human history.”

“Human beings get our power from having a hundred trillion inter-neural connections operating simultaneously,” Kurzweil writes. We are approaching a time when computers will be programmed to create and build even-more-intelligent systems. At this point, Kurzweil warns, the acceleration of computer intelligence threatens to become exponential. Within 20 years, computers will not merely be super-intelligent, “they will be conscious, feeling beings deserving of the same rights, privileges and consideration people give each other.

“I don’t think we can stop it. I think there are profound dangers,” Kurzweil states. Still, he doesn’t agree with Bill Joy’s argument that we must call a halt the acceleration of artificial intelligence systems before we create a system that grows out of human control. “The only way you can stop technology advancement,” Kurzweil warns, “would be to have a totalitarian, state-enforced ban.”

The Need for a “Green” Singularity
By Gar Smith

We have arrived at one of history’s great watersheds,” writes Ervin Laszlo in his book, Macroshift: Navigating the Transformation to a Sustainable World [Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco,]. The civilization of the modern age “is not sustainable; it is destined to disappear.”

Laszlo, the science director of the International Peace University of Berlin, is an expert in the field of systems theory. Laszlo argues that it is critical that the world “move from economic globalization to a new and sustainable civilization.” Such profound and rapid changes in human history are called Macroshifts. Previous Macroshifts occurred with the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the development of agriculture, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Age.

According to Laszlo, the old order of humankind’s evolution “can be encapsulated in three terms: conquest, colonization and consumption.” The coming Macroshift will require a transformation to an evolution that relies on “connection, communication and consciousness.”

Laszlo’s Macroshift represents the kind of fundamental social and economic change that environmentalists have been championing. The question now is whether the advent of an accelerating technological Singularity will eclipse Laszlo’s envisioned Macroshift and usher in a new world that leaves humankind diminished and alienated from life, from joy and from the natural world.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.