7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
That science, in particular those of genetics, robotics, information technology and nanotechnology (the GRIN technologies) is shortly going to dramatically increase the power we have to change our very physical and psychological makeups is something that few of those knowledgeable about the subject seriously doubt. This book doesn't try to give an exhaustive account of the startling developments that will likely take place, but rather attempts to explore the moral issues involved and the astonishingly profound impacts upon society that they will likely soon have, probably to the extent of transforming our very idea of human nature itself.
The book's core is divided into three parts, each of which details a particular scenario, a possible future in which the human race is either led to heaven, to hell, or simply prevails. For each scenario, there is a focus on a particular personality in the debate, a representative of the particular position and, I guess, an attempt to add a little colour and 'humanity' to the narrative. For me, this blending of real, breathing human figures into a discussion of the scientific transformation of human nature doesn't quite work (perhaps the characters are a little too 'nerdy' or at least 'untypical' for it to succeed). However, the tripartite structure of the book is fairly effective. As visions of our collective near-future, 'heaven' and 'hell' might seem overly optimistic or pessimistic respectively, but the whole (and rather unnerving) point of the changes that are predicted to come is that they are likely to be ever more extreme and rapid. Ray Kurzweil (here, the proponent of the heaven outcome) has referred to it as the 'singularity', the author of this book as 'the curve' - essentially, the growth of the grin technologies is exponential. Whether you can swallow Kurzweil's prediction that progress will soon become so rapid that within a couple of hundreds of years the entire universe could become a single grand intelligence ('alive'), it should be simple to understand that once humans can artificially make themselves more intelligent (or machines make themselves more intelligent) then further improvements are likely to become increasingly fast, surely so fast that any society will not be able to control the outcome of such changes. Partly for this reason, the weakest scenario described is that of the 'prevail' outcome, where humanity simply muddles through, come what may. Though the cause of this scenario is not helped by the choice of personality to represent it, a man named Joel Garnier, who doesn't seem to be particularly foremost in any of the Grin technologies apart from being a writer of software. He also come across rather as some new age dreamer with a lot of babbling talk about interconnectedness and the wish to have the wings of cuttle fish.
One voice strikingly missing from the debate presented in the book is that of the British philosopher John Gray. His books, in particular `Straw Dogs', contain the most powerful expositions I have yet read of the belief that humanity can never be masters of its own destiny, above all in relation to the use of technology to enhance human nature and to direct it`s own evolution. Believers in the inevitability of the curve or singularity often point to the obvious truth that the military and economic advantages of using the grin technologies to enhance human beings will be so great as to be irresistible and unavoidable. The Americans will do it, because if they don't, the Chinese, Indians or Japanese will. Yet, as Gray says, `The new, post-human creatures that may emerge from these murky rivalries will not be ideal types embodying the best human ideals: they will reproduce some of the worst features of unregenerate humanity'.
There is, however, a brief discussion of the desirability of transcending human nature (something that is the proud goal of a group of scientists and thinkers who call themselves 'transhumanists'). The author, Joel Garreau, makes clear at the end that he is strongly in favour of allowing the 'enhancement' of humanity and would fall in the prevail camp if not the heaven. To his credit, each of the arguments and scenarios does seem to be given equal space and standing. This, and the fascination nature of the debate and the illuminating prose of the author, makes this book a very useful introduction to a morally complex, incredible, yet startlingly urgent subject.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
This is about the so-called GRIN technologies: Genetic, Robotic, Information, and Nano. Properly speaking the title should be "Extreme Cultural Evolution," or perhaps "Accelerated Technological Evolution." "Radical" is used here in the sense of "extreme." Regardless of what we call it, for better or for worse, we will be enhancing our minds and bodies and changing the life forms around us, especially those we use for food. In fact we have already done so through computers, surgery, artificial limbs, genetically engineer agricultural products, etc. The difference to come is all about the acceleration of change coming from these technologies.
What happens when your daughter's brave new genetic endowment gives her a prodigious memory and makes her smarter, prettier, and stronger than you? No problem. We love our children. Ah, but what happens when she realizes that at age eighteen she is like an Australopithecus creature compared to the new genetic and nanotechnological enhancements bestowed upon her classmates just a few years younger?
What happens is the end of the world as we know it, and most critically the end of human beings as we know ourselves. The question is, is this is a good thing or a bad thing?
Joel Garreau has several answers in terms of scenarios of the future. There is the "Heaven Scenario," the "Hell Scenario," the "Prevail Scenario," and the "Transcend" possibility. Garreau interviewed a number of experts in many fields in an effort to find out not only what the prospects are, but to count noses, so to speak, and see who's optimistic and who isn't.
Put Ray Kurzweil, author of The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999)--see my review on Amazon--in the camp of those who see marvelous things happening, in fact a glorious singularity of advancement. Put Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, in the camp of those who believe we are headed for a right awful hell on earth. And put polymath Jaron Lanier in the camp of those who think we can prevail over our creations. And put Michael Goldblatt of the US military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the platoon of happy warriors just having fun with the prospect of new and more amazingly advanced weaponry (or defenses from weaponry).
After reading this dense and fascinating book I have a few observations. First, regardless of whether we like it or not, or whether Luddites and social conservatives manage to slow down or even halt some of the research, nothing but nothing is going to stem the tide, or alter The Curve, as Garreau calls the shape of things to come. If we don't do stem cell research or explore replicating nanobots, you can be sure that somebody else--in Korea, in China, in Russia, even in Pakistan--will. Any nation or culture that chooses to not explore these brave new worlds will be in danger of not only being left behind economically and militarily, but in grave danger of living a sub existence like that of pets or zoo animals.
There is some debate about this point. Garreau explores the idea that nothing will stop the tsunami and does find some people who think we can put up a wall or at least quiet the rampaging waters. Still others are asking, why should we? Think-tanker Francis Fukuyama, author of Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (2002)--see my review at Amazon--believes there is something precious in humans as presently constituted. He is fearful that we will lose that human nature through biological engineering. Personally, glancing at the history of human kind, I think that human nature could use some altering, and indeed believe that unless human nature does change, we won't be around much longer. Fukuyama believes that, were we to become as immortal as the gods, we would stagnate. He "doesn't think immortals will ever have a new idea again" and only the death of people allows new ideas to take root. (p. 163)
What if we do conquer all and end up with this so-called heaven on earth? What will it consist of? Will we pursue endless delights from brain chemistry? Are we creatures ruled by the gods of pleasure and pain, or is there some transcendental aspect to us? Garreau explores this question near the end of the book with help from Martin E.P. Seligman's three levels of happiness: "the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life." Here I think Garreau, along with Seligman is whistling Dixie in the dark. The "meaningful life" is what? According to what I could gather on pages 261-262, the "meaning consists in attachment to something bigger than you are." Seligman finds such attachment in various activities from raising children to saving the whales to being a terrorist. I think a more lasting attachment may be to something like exploring the cosmos.
But would humans really have sufficient desire to do that? Recalling some famous dystopias from literature, H.G. Wells's The Time Machine or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, for example, I suspect that creatures such as ourselves (as currently constituted) can only exist in environments not that far removed from the savannah. Cities are tough enough for the couch potato obese of the Western world. If we gain everything our biology desires, we may become (further) degenerate and fall victim to something untoward and unpredictable. Or we may just end up examining our navels as the perfect mixture of chemicals courses through our bodies. If we conquer all and have no challenges left, what will we do? What does a perfectly satisfied and perfectly serene creature do? We don't know. Transcend human nature perhaps?
on 3 January 2011
Having developed a curiosity about the so-called Singularity that many predict the 21st century will bring, I wanted something that gave me a balanced view. I had read Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy (who are at polar opposites of opinion) but wondered if anyone had a 'middle-ground' viewpoint. So, evidently, did Joel Garreau. He presents the findings of his immaculate research into The Curve and The Singularity with clarity, insight, humour, and a style that draws you in as effectively as the most skillful mystery writer.
Just buy it and read it . . . you will be recommending it to all your friends in order to have someone to discuss it with!