The New Renaissance
During the last half of the 20th Century, advances in knowledge—in the scientific and technological realms—advanced at a steady exponential rate. It has been pleasantly surprising in many aspects, but won't begin to compare with the new Renaissance that I believe will explode across this new century.
The coming Renaissance will significantly outpace the Renaissance era that flowered 500 years ago. The coming Era will see outstanding and astounding advances not only for humanity, but for this small island that we inhabit. The major changes will be due to the integration of the biological with computer and other technologies. We will begin to truly evolve ourselves. What marvels await us are at the extreme limits of our imagination—from super-genius humans, to those who have transported their life-consciousness entirely within solid-state ``machines.'' We will become trainman.
In the reasonably near-term—essentially now— genetic engineering will transform our physical bodies. Growing or repairing new body parts, curing previously hopeless ailments, for starters. Within the next couple of decades, genetic treatments will cure many illnesses that presently take costly drugs to mask symptoms.
Among the things that have and probably will continue to stall things in this area are religious objections to genetic research, and entrenched business interests such as the so-called cancer industry. In other words, lobbies that earn billions of dollars annually from the suffering of millions.
Among the more important areas that genetic engineering will affect over the next quarter-century is boosting human intelligence. I think it is well within reason to expect our mental horsepower to be doubled or even tripled. Through careful tuning of the natural neural circuits that govern our memory and intellectual facilities we will become more fully aware and alert, more able to solve problems, that much more attuned to our world.
The knee-jerk reaction opposing anything in the ``genetically engineered'' realm is misinformed. Humans have been making crude improvements in genetic by cross-breeding for millennial. Only more recently has this been done with primarily specific genes in mind. Moreover, the science behind manipulating individual genes does not require Ph.D-level skills as Fred Hapgood points out in the April-May, 2000 issue of CIVILIZATION.
People have already begun begun their own experimentation with individual genes and the coming years will surely see this science-project experimentation expand. What may turn out to be similar to programming computers— programming DNA—may become equally popular. If legislation prevents people in the first-world from such work and play, expect the second- and third-world countries to own the world—unexpectedly suddenly.
I believe people will be capable of genius that is unimaginable today. Following the genetically engineered increases— or possibly concurrent with it—the technologies will introduce networks of tiny artificial neuronic systems that will skyrocket the human potential light years further. The result will be a positive explosion in every field of the arts and sciences that will make the end of the next century vastly different than what we see today.
Among the things to be taken into consideration when people have sharply increased intelligence is that their ethical standards stay on the right track; tweaking the IQ means similar tweaks will be essential to the higher [and lower] emotional centers that drive greed and hatred and other mal-behavior. For example, Andreas Meyer-Lindberg, a neuroscientist at the NIH studied two variants of a gene that regulates the production of an enzyme labeled MAO-A. The variant that yields weak MAOA results in in elevated serotonin production. The other mutation sparks intense MAOA production which results in low-normal serotonin levels. People who have endured severe abuse as children and who have the weak-MAOA mutation are prone to violent and aggressive behavior and "delinquent acts in later life far more often than do abused kids who carry the strong-MAOA gene variant." ["Violent Developments", SCIENCE NEWS, May 27, 2006, Vol 16, No. 21.] In any kind of anti-social behavior, environmental factors (how people are treated, how they understand themselves, their backgrounds from a holistic viewpoint) must be factored into the equation. A person's genetics tells the rest of the story; and here, I believe genetics are most of the story. The intellectual and healing gains in the near future spell neither heaven nor heal; there is too much chaos in the human equation to anticipate a bee-line to either extreme!
A Georgia Institute of Technology professor, Bill Ditto, has developed a neural-net type computer made of leech neurons. A neural network computer can actually learn thru experience; by interconnecting thousands or millions of these simple neuron computers any kind of computational processing may be possible.
Researchers from Hewlett-Packard working with a UCLA team have made first steps toward a molecular logic circuit that within a decade could create a sand-grained size computer with the power of 100 high-end workstations. The basis of the circuit is build by sandwiching a custom molecule between two criss-crossed wires.
Of course, today none of this foundling research is directed at increasing human intelligence—at least not publicly. But when it is, given the great adaptability of the brain, it should not prove difficult to create an interface to network thousands of tiny computers within the chemical network of neuronal structures that make up much of the brain.
We have already figured out how to restore primitive sight to the blind and have been restoring hearing to the deaf by cochlear implants. Deep-brain stimulation has been controlling severe tremors for years now. These technologies already wed biologic and computer technologies.
Teams around the world are nearing brain-computer interfaces (BCI's) and recently, Jessica Bayliss, a grad student at the University of Rochester's National Resource Laboratory for the Study of Brain and Behavior has demonstrated the beginnings of a stimulus-response BCI. Using volunteers wearing a virtual-reality helmet and their own thought can turn virtual switches on and off. They can also brake a virtual car. Bayliss has managed to isolate the brain's signals from the masses of extraneous electronic noise so that these signals are useful. When you bear in mind that the first step is the hardest you understand the magnitude of this government-sponsored (NIH) step.
Exactly what genetic components affect the general cognitive abilities has only begun to be discovered. Since the notion of intelligence as a whole is so broad, there are almost certainly a large complex of genes involved in its regulation. Among the different characteristics labeled as intelligences are verbal, spatial, mathematical, visual, auditory, muscular, emotional to name a few. The concept of intelligence to indicate the talent to understand and excel at mathematics or verbal problems is the tip of the iceberg. Notwithstanding, it is likely that the ability of neurons to respond rapidly and efficiently—to ``snap to attention''— and solve problems is governed by relatively few genes.
In the late 1990's researcher Robert Plomin at the Institute of Psychiatry in London pushed the edges of molecular genetics by reporting that an allele of a gene at the end of chromosome 6 was greater in samples of very bright children than in control samples of children of average ability. Plomin says that this discovery is definitely not a gene for genius and at best accounts for only a slight increase in overall intelligence.
Whatever differences race or environment play in intelligence will be insignificant compared to the amount of increase by mid-century technology. Everyone will have a general ``IQ'' —though that term will be virtually obsolete—high enough to make any disparity insignificant. At the same time people will have as wide ranging and diverse set of interests, aptitudes, and talents as they do today. This diversity will power myriad possibilities and facilitate the new renaissance.
Unintended Consequences and Human Nature
What of the arrogance of unintended consequences, tho? So far, man has only been playing at playing-God. As we better understand the mechanics of life from the molecular level, our play demands more critical attention. How can man possibly have the deep wisdom of 4000 million years of Darwinian evolution that the wisdom of Nature has had? I can only answer these pondering by saying that, yes, we will certainly make our share of mistakes—fewer certainly than Nature did by trial-and-error, and hopefully not with disastrous consequences. I can also point out that since the field of Complexity Theory began to be understood nearly 40 years ago a growing number of scientists and engineers have begun working together, cross-pollinating fields. The computer models that simulate ``Life'' have continued to improve since the early years; that within the coming years, as we understand the human genome better, these models will achieve undreamed-of levels of sophistication. Science does not make so many ``breakthroughs'' as much as it builds upon previous successes and learns from its errors.
Will the human proclivity toward selfishness and evil be our downfall? Will future trans-humans do the morally correct thing in their laboratories, or will they be as subject to failings and weaknesses as people today? How much a heightened intellect has to do with the light of wisdom or the broader kindnesses and considerations that hallmark ``ivory-tower'' types can only be surmised. There is probably no one-to-one correlation between the highest state of good and the highest intelligence, but there is at least some correlation. The basest acts reflect the lowest minds. Assuming that we have eliminated virtually all mental illness and social or societal deviants over the next century, at least these pathologies will not exist.
If your view of society is pessimistic, you may agree that society is fundamentally doomed, our future enslaved at least to demonic machinery, possibly to human demons. There are fears that as technology continues its exponential explosion, before we realize it, our technology will be so intricately complex that computers and ancillary evil technology will rule mankind. Trans-brilliant robots come to mind here.
Seeing technological advances as dooming and damning forgets that what creates and sustains wealth is ideas, knowledge, intelligence. Given the steep and broad advances in human intelligence, where super-intellects checkmate each other, I don't see the future that bleakly. Only the market view of ``human nature'' expects the worst. If I didn't expect humankind to evolve itself, I would tend to agree with the largely mythic claim about human nature. But as we evolve ourselves, we will of course evolve our nature.
I do believe that very intelligent machines will govern—or help to govern—much of the future; I also believe that we will be these machines and they, us. To paraphrase Pogo, ``We will have met the super-rebuts and discovered that they are us.''
As human intellect is broadly expanded, the global burdens considered politically, socially, and economically will lessen. Issues of paramount concern like environmental conservation, natural resource preservation, population control, and personal liberties will unify the network of humankind.
Where else the coming renaissance paths will lead is unknown; probably in any number of distinct directions as institutions themselves evolve. Some institutions may well go extinct, with newer ones replacing them.
As we continue our self-evolution, we will be stronger, healthier human beings with a lifespan that measures its middle years, at least theoretically, in the centuries. The adventurous among us may well transfer our consciousness into solid-state hardware to venture into intra-galactic space; or, to settle into fantastic new territory within the earth's crust.
As we move forward, given the exponential increase in sheer complexity within fields, the great blending is going to increase. The ultimate focus is life, after all, and that draws virtually everything together in the great adventure that will be the coming renaissance.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Immortalist, September-October, 2000, Vol. 32 No. 9-10. ISSN-1079-7832.
The Immortalist is the bi-monthly journal of the Immortalist Society.