I was going to entitle this post, “It’s time to say goodbye to our old reality!”, but then it became obvious that the old is already gone and the new is clearly here and growing fast. For example, CRISPR, robots, drones, and the web are here and improving their abilities exponentially at the moment, and when and where each of these technologies will reach their peak and stabilize is unknowable at this time.
Each of these technologies has wonderful life-enhancing possibilities, but of course with great power comes the possibility of doing great harm. It is the responsibility of individual people to channel these new powers into life-enhancing paths, but unfortunately humans, every one of us, go through a metamorphosis from infancy, to childhood, to adolescence to adulthood, to maturity, and hopefully to sage-hood. This process takes considerable time, of course, and natural abilities, experience, social thinking, and humanity-wide level of moral development. Steven Pinker, in his book “The Better Angels of our Nature” documents humanity’s long-term trend toward more moral and kinder behavior towards one another, but the power of the new technologies will stress our human morality to new and unknowable limits. Let us do everything possible to assure that our aggregate humanity makes it possible for humanity to thrive for a long time. Here are some obvious problem areas.
CRISPR is a laboratory method for inserting any DNA genes directly into any species precisely where they are intended to go. It permits humans, for the last couple of years and for the forseeable future, to develop increasing ability to modify living organisms into anything imaginable. It appears the only limitations on CRISPR are those imposed by physical reality, and in this case we don’t know what those limits are. The Chinese are apparently already using CRISPR to create superhuman embryos, but it will take twenty years to grow these into fully functioning adults. What will come of this technology in a hundred years is certain to be astonishing. The scary part of this technology is the ease of weaponizing disease.
Robots and other machines are becoming ever more able to manufacture the things we think we need, but this makes humans ever less useful for creating new products. Already huge mining machines are being driven by computers, thus eliminating many jobs, and long-haul trucks are now being driven by computers with drivers who don’t drive them, but only monitor their operations. After the suicides of airliner pilots, having them replaced, or at least overridden by computers in many situations, is being planned.
Drones are already being used in military operations, and in many applications are superior to humans, because they don’t tire and make some kinds of mistakes. Drones are also used for surveillance, which at the moment is mostly surveillance of military situations, but this is bound to change. First will be monitoring of highways and traffic, but soon it will be the monitoring of individual people. It is already easy to do, and as the price of drones drops the quality and quantity of the surveillance will increase. The upside of this is good, but the potential misuse of these devices is potentially very bad. The Chinese are already reported to be building tens of thousands of drones.
The web is becoming more astonishing by the day, and you need only query Google to see it instantly provide multiple guesses as to what you are searching for, and that requires having some understanding of your motivations. My ASUS Nexus with the new Android program translates my speech into Google searches and provides spoken answers within seconds of my asking my question, with the various in-depth text options to be viewed while it is speaking a basic answer. This is wonderful, and getting better by the day, but how can we help but worry how far this technology will go into our personal living motivations? It already feels like Google has a better understanding of what I want than I do.
Let us do what we can to bring a humane morality to this astonishing new world. Remember, you too are human and will be forced to live with what you create. Clearly:
It’s time to say hello to our new reality.