Glowing rabbits and perma-kittens
In the darkened acoustic splendor of the SFJazz Center last week, a science-fiction author addressed a crowd of Long Now Foundation members and assuaged fears our collective technological future.
The talk was hosted by LNF President Stewart Brand, late of the Merry Pranksters, The Whole Earth Catalogue and the WELL, and was part of the organization’s Seminars on Long-Term Thinking series. The audience was mostly educated, white, and older-than-thirty, a serious-minded subset of the general NPR demographic.
The night’s entertainment and live thinking was provided by Ramez Naam, a contempo-P.T. Barnum with a traveling Powerpoint presentation. Naam titillated the audience with a rundown of the state of the transhumanist art, and assured them that it was all going to be ok.
This cheery outlook may come as a surprise to readers of Naam’s NEXUS trilogy, the final volume of which has just been released. Those books detail the geopolitical turmoil arising from a technology that wirelessly links human brains and allows them to be read and manipulated. They are packed with action and disaster, more Tom Clancy than brooding techno-dystopia.
At an earlier San Francisco, back in May when Naam was interviewed by [Pando investor] Mike Arrington, he explained that the blood and strife and general focus on the negative effects of such a technology were merely necessary to sell books, and didn’t reflect his world view.
“The militarism is there to keep the tension high. It’s my first fictional book and I didn’t want people to get bored,” he said.
Naam is a 19-year veteran of Microsoft and currently teaches at Singularity University in Mountain View.
“Technology is both terrifying and awesome, but I’m an optimist. The world just gets better,” Naam said at the event in May.
Last week’s presentation, titled “Enhancing Humans, Advancing Humanity,” further developed this theme:
“I’m going to talk about making ourselves more than human, how technology can change us and how people fear this, but why it is for the better,” he began.
A tour-by-slideshow ensued, showcasing the freakish wonders of current basic research into human genetic manipulation and human machine interfaces. Naam hailed the health-improvement potentials of genome editing, citing controversial (and highly imperfect) Chinese CRISPR research. “The National Institutes of Health won’t fund any human embryonic studies. I think this is short-sighted,” Naam said.
He heralded developments in brain implant research, many funded by NIH and DARPA, demonstrated through animal research – Macaques on cocaine with brain-chips taking IQ tests, connected rats sharing memories and behavior cues from thousands of miles away, assisted-memory retrieval for monkeys…
Naam foretold the emergence of less-invasive direct brain interfaces, such as injectable mesh and “neural dust.” And he held up counter-arguments just long enough to knock them down, before proceeding to his rosy conclusions.
All this human-enhancing technology, he said, would slot right into to the general trajectory in which “technology has driven increases in empathy and compassion.” Rather than imposing conformity a la Gattaca, the propensity for genetic and cybernetic alterations will allow us to better express ourselves. Since we’ll be smarter and better connected, we’ll come up with more great ideas and see greater economic growth (because of Metcalfe’s law). And since “technology is an equalizer not a divider”, and Moore’s law provides for the rapid decrease in the price of new tools, the poor will benefit along with the rich. We will be in better health, and our lives filled with more joy. Oh, and by enhancing ourselves we can protect our jobs from the incursions of robots.
But that’s not all. Raam also noted that genetic manipulation could make it easier to survive on Mars. And it will also provide us with adorable mutant pets like glowing rabbits and perma-kittens.
So there, you see? Nothing to worry about. Besides, Naam argued, paraphrasing Richard Dawkins and a DARPA lecture series, biology is technology. And since we use computers and smartphones to enhance our abilities, we’re already cyborgs anyway.
The crowd seemed unsettled whenever Naam brought up DARPA’s involvement in the research that excites him, but the author never addressed the particular concern of what these developments look like in the hands of the Pentagon. Stewart Brand, who likely recognized his own influence in Naam’s full-throated endorsement of technology’s breathtaking promise, didn’t address these concerns either during the wrap-up Q&A.
At the end of the night, Raam mentioned that for his next fictional undertaking, he’ll be addressing Artificial Intelligence. He didn’t elaborate except to say that he believes it is “not remotely plausible” that AI poses an existential threat to humanity.
Elon, do you hear?