At the start of the 21st century, humankind finds itself on a non-sustainable course – a course that, unless it is changed, will lead to the convergence of the “perfect storm” of population growth, resource depletion and climate change with catastrophic results. At the same time, we are unlocking formidable new capabilities that could lead to much more exciting lives and glorious civilizations. This could be humanity’s last century, or it could be the century in which civilization sets sail towards a far more spectacular future. The 21st century will make available staggering quantities of new knowledge and computerized intelligence, leading to levels of creativity inconceivable in the 20th century.
In the next fifty years, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and cognitive science will allow human beings to transcend the limitations of the human body. Healthy lifespans will extend well beyond a century. Our senses and cognition will be enhanced. We will have greater control over our emotions and memory. Our bodies and brains will be surrounded by and merged with computer power. We will use these technologies to redesign ourselves and our children in ways that push the boundaries of “humanness”.
There is a transhumanist movement that welcomes, indeed encourages, the development of a wide range of human enhancements and, in general, takes the position that humans should be able to transform themselves in radical ways, such as exponential increases in cognitive capacity or dramatic increases in healthy life spans. On the other hand, a loose coalition of groups has emerged to forbid human enhancement from genetic therapies and psychopharmaceuticals to prosthetic organs and nanomedical robotics. This “bioconservative” coalition is diverse, including some bioethicists, religious conservatives, disability rights and environmental activists, and leftist critics of biotechnology.
We believes this debate desperately needs voices that argue for the potential benefits of new technologies while proposing realistic policies to mitigate their risks within a strong democratic framework. Technology and democracy complement one another, ensuring that safe technology is generally accessible and democratically accountable. The convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science in the coming decades will give us unimaginable technological mastery of nature and ourselves. That mastery requires progressive democratization.
Sooner or later, one of society’s major concerns will be how we cope with machines much more intelligent than us. The Singularity University (SU) gains its name from a 2005 book by Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near. In it, he argues that the exponential advance of technology is set to transform society by giving rise to computers that are more clever than humans. NASA and Google’s backing of SU demonstrates the growing mainstream acceptance of Kurzweil’s views, which include a claim that before the middle of this century artificial intelligence will outstrip human beings, ushering in a new era of civilisation.
The 21st century could see the emergence of civilizations very different from those of the past and, perhaps, very different from one another. The question “What could a great civilization be like?” needs to be addressed today, not in 20 years’ time, because it can help navigate the intense white water we are moving into. If we don’t constantly address this top-level question, then the extraordinary advances in technology will probably lead to a stressed-out society with lifestyles far removed from the quality of life for which we now have the potential. Mushrooming complexity may bring a metastable civilization. Now is a time when human wisdom and creativity should be examining the new possibilities in 21st-century civilization.
FAIR USE NOTICE
This is a not-for-profit site. It contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorised by the copyright owner. We are making such material available for educational purposes as part of our efforts to advance understanding of human rights issues and other matters of political, cultural and humanitarian significance in a global perspective. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in Copyright Law. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.