Pharyngula

Futurists make me cranky

And I don’t want to hear you complaining that everything makes me cranky! I get especially grumpy about armchair futurists making pronouncements about biology when they don’t know a thing about it.

Chairman and CEO of Biotechonomy, Enriquez says that humanity is on the verge of becoming a new and utterly unique species, which he dubs Homo Evolutis. What makes this species so unique is that it “takes direct and deliberate control over the evolution of the species.” Calling it the “ultimate reboot,” he points to the conflux of DNA manipulation and therapy, tissue generation, and robotics as making this great leap possible.

The day may come when we are able to take the best biology of the known animal kingdom and make it part of our own. This isn’t just about being a bit stronger, or having perfect eyesight our whole lives. All of our organs and limbs have weaknesses that can be addressed, and there are also opportunities to go beyond basic fixes and perform more elaborate enhancements. At a private lunch on Thursday, Enriquez spoke of a young girl who, after suffering a knee injury, received tendon replacement therapy centered around tendons grown in a lab. It not only fixed her knee, but made it stronger than normal. Later in life as she pursued life as a professional skier, he coach actually asked that she have the same surgery on her other knee to increase her abilities.

Every species is new and unique. Humans have some unusual specializations, but it doesn’t warrant his misplaced enthusiasm. Every species also takes control over its own evolution, in a sense; individuals make choices of all sorts that influence what will happen in the next generation. You could rightly argue that they don’t do it with planning and intent, but I have seen nothing that suggests that our attempts to modify our species, low tech and high tech together, are any wiser or better informed about the long-term consequences than those of any rat fighting for an opportunity to mate. We do what we do; don’t pretend it’s part of a long term plan that is actually prepared for all of the unexpected eventualities.

And then, of course, what does he talk about? Phenotypic patchwork! That isn’t evolution at all. That girl’s children will have whatever tendons her genetics grant them, without regard for the surgeon’s tinkering. Then he has the gall to claim that this warrants the designation of a new species? Hah. I wear eyeglasses. I declare that I am a member of Homo oculis! I read and communicate with text, so I’m now a member of Homo literatus! I’ve had my appendix removed, therefore I am part of the bold vanguard of Homo sanscecum!

And don’t get me started on Ray Kurzweil. That guy is bonkers.

Comments

  1. #1 Andyo
    February 9, 2009

    Oh the good old days, when all we had to do was eating and fucking. It’s getting harder to evolve now.

  2. #2 Russell Blackford
    February 9, 2009

    I guess I’m in trouble then: http://jetpress.org/v20/editorial.htm

  3. #3 CSBSH
    February 9, 2009

    It would be interesting to know why you think Kurzweil is bonkers. Sure, he might be overly optimistic about when Geek Rapture will occur, but it seems to me that it will occur eventually.

  4. #4 Brad
    February 9, 2009

    Hmmmph! Biotech venture capitalists, you can’t teach them enough science to really have a clue what they are investing in, all they want is stuff from the movies. It’d all about perception with that lot.

  5. #5 Jadehawk
    February 9, 2009

    eh. the only chance humans have to speciate is in isolated space colonies. since any form of space-flight will involve ridiculous amounts of time, we might have enough time to get to the point of developing specific adaptations and even lose the ability to breed with other colonies.

    but until then, this kind of post-humanism is just silly

  6. #6 Jbeaufort
    February 9, 2009

    I’m curious as to what it is exactly about Ray Kurzweil that causes you to label him bonkers. I enjoy reading both yours and Ray’s thoughts, and consider you both intelligent and well spoken within your respective fields.

    Sure, Ray can overreach with regards to exactly when and how technological advancements will arrive to change fundamentally the way we live. But with respect to artificial intelligence (his forte), I think he makes good points about the impact of a Moore’s Law in the next 50 years. We are already able to emulate large sections of mammalian brains within a computer. If Moore’s Law holds (and there is no reason to expect it shouldn’t) for the next 20 years (give or take a decade or two, depending on whether we’ve under- or over-estimated the complexity of the human mind), we will have a supercomputer with enough processing power to emulate the human mind in software.

    If we achieve true artificial intelligence that can pass the Turing test, it will be a technological achievement that makes us reevaluate what it means to be human.

  7. #7 Brendan White
    February 9, 2009

    Its not that we are taking control of our own destiny, its that the memes are taking over for the genes in our evolutionary path.

  8. #8 Daniel M
    February 9, 2009

    Ah, well, PZ – you may be a biologist but you aren’t a science fiction author or a transhumanist (to my knowledge!), and it’s not as if he was going to stop to make sure the ‘zine printed the exact truth, unsimplified. The guy (Enriquez) may not be a scientist even – he’s the CEO – but cut him some slack, he’s on the same side.

    What the transhumanists are talking about is direct genetic manipulation of the species, giving us control over our own and our offspring’s bodies in a way which was never possible before (and it certainly isn’t possible just yet). It doesn’t mean all humans magically become homo superior, but some might tinker with their own genetic code enough to essentially become a new species.

    We need people like Kurzweil and Brin to imagine where we could be, even if other people actually take us there.

  9. #9 Tony P
    February 9, 2009

    Regarding Kurzweil I’m not so sure. As someone who watched the march of technology I’d say he’s pretty good at it.

  10. #10 piscusfiche
    February 9, 2009

    Odd, how this new species can breed with the old species and not encounter any post-zygotic barriers. You’d almost think it was the EXACT SAME SPECIES. Almost.

    (That always drove me crazy in the Marvelverse. Why are the Xmen considered their own species when they can mate and not run into sterility issues a few generations down?)

  11. #11 jcb
    February 9, 2009

    Phenotypic patchwork! That isn’t evolution at all. That girl’s children will have whatever tendons her genetics grant them, without regard for the surgeon’s tinkering. Then he has the gall to claim that this warrants the designation of a new species? Hah.

    Sure, surgical modification isn’t heritable (unless you spout Lamarckism), but wait until we have nanorobot cybernetic augmentations that can duplicate themselves when their host reproduces.

    It isn’t entirely implausible that DNA may not remain the only form of human heredity for much longer.

    However, the question of “is that speciation?” would probably still be answered with a resounding no?such devices would probably be designed specifically to not interfere with reproduction. So no new species of humanity, sorry.

    And yes, the Singularity nonsense bothers me also?especially when I’m expected to “envision life after the Technological Singularity”.

    (My answer to that assignment was to state that there had been many such events in the past and our modern era would be as incomprehensible to someone from long ago as the “post-Singularity” world would be to us. I got an A in that class. And of course, the professor thought Kurzweil was a great thinker and pretty much a prophet. *Barf*!)

  12. #12 uncle frogy
    February 9, 2009

    this brings to mind some thoughts I have been toying with lately. In a lot of sci-fi. there are strange looking humanoids what with the real distances and the speed of light making it unlikely to see Aliens. I began to look at what we have done to our selves, tattoos & piercings, plastic surgery & sex changes, steroids. Who would want to bet that some would not do enough to make themselves into say a Klingon. Not today but if what we do today is any guide I would not be surprised. Add advances in DNA research and therapy some fool might want to be a “Marvel hero” or … it will be in our future some day

  13. #13 Brownian
    February 9, 2009

    But a lot of things do make you cranky, PZ.

    To the futurists: where’s my flying car, daily meal injections, and hyperbaric clothing (whatever that would be)?

    The difficulty futurists have is usually not in imagining the potential capabilities of technology, but in the social factors that promote or suppress those technological innovations.

    An SF author once wrote (I can’t for the life of me remember the source, so I’ll paraphrase): “Anyone can predict cars. But the real test is in predicting drive-ins, making out in the back seat, and smog.”

  14. #14 PixelFish
    February 9, 2009

    (Nevermind about the X-men. According to wikipedia they are regarded as a sub-species. Whew.)

  15. #15 RamblinDude
    February 9, 2009

    Well you?re no fun. I?m looking forward to having the eyesight of an eagle and the speed of a cheetah on titanium legs. I don?t care what you call it.

    To the future! (And stop dilly dallying, scientists; I?m not getting any younger.)

  16. #16 SourBlaze
    February 9, 2009

    Dang, PZ, you’re sure up late.

    In all seriousness, I’m waiting for some creationist loon to plaster this one all over the web to make all evolutionists look foolish.

  17. #17 Daniel M
    February 9, 2009

    …and this does tell me he knows more of what he’s talking about than your blog entry makes out:

    The point was clear: one day it will be possible for everyone to have stronger joints, bones, etc., thanks to work being done today, work which may ultimately be delivered into DNA. We would become a species that could, literally, control its own biological destiny.

    I’m an unabashed futurist, geek rapture all the way! ;)

  18. #18 Parker
    February 9, 2009

    Kurzweil is interesting. But seriously, you can;t consider our evolution managed in any degreee with the amount of inbred fuck-offs who have 5 or so kids.

  19. #19 Funnyguts
    February 9, 2009

    Kurzweil’s okay, but democratic transhumanist writers like the ones at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies are far more interesting. James Hughes is particularly impressive.

  20. #20 Tony Sidaway
    February 9, 2009

    Oh I just crank The Clash’s White Riot up loud and the futurologists can just go to hell.

    Stanislaw Lem wrote a lovely novel about futurology: The Futorological Congress. Says it all. The Michael Kandel translation is ISBN 0-15-634040-2, and it’s a riot, too.

  21. #21 Jim
    February 9, 2009

    He’s not wrong in principle. We just aren’t there yet, technologically.

  22. #22 Jeff
    February 9, 2009

    Well, if we as a species get to the point where we can manipulate our genes with ease we may very well have a different type of evolution on our hands in which natural selection takes a backseat to human selection.

  23. #23 Milo Johnson
    February 9, 2009

    Kurzweil may be a bit nutty, but his Kurzweil 250 synthesizers created the mold for most modern keyboards to this day, and even though they are approaching thirty years old they are still incredibly powerful and great-sounding instruments in daily use in major studios around the world.

  24. #24 Knight of L-sama
    February 9, 2009

    Honestly, the largest issue that I can see is excessive optimism. All but the most dedicated trans-humanists are going to be at least a little apprehensive when it comes to tinkering with our genome, and understandably so. Such caution is going to slow down the up-take of technology and delay it’s wide spread usage.

    That being said P.Z. you have to admit that once we start tinkering with our genomes (and I’m convinced that it’s going to be at least attempted sooner or later) things are going to get screwy. And that’s not even taking into account how advances in uniting man and machine might affect things.

  25. #25 Pony
    February 9, 2009

    Correct me if I’m wrong, (no really, please do) but I thought that social/behavioural barriers to reproduction were included in the criteria for speciation? Like grasshoppers who can successfully produce non-sterile offspring but would never actually breed, because their mating calls are at different pitches.

  26. #26 Nostradumbo
    February 9, 2009

    I thought Moore’s Law had already been repealed,
    in the sense that we have pretty much reached the
    smallest feature size that can be etched onto a
    silicon wafer. Going further would require entirely
    different technologies; no reason to think that the
    ‘Law’ would continue to hold. That is, assuming that
    there is enough money to go forward.

  27. #27 C Barr
    February 9, 2009

    For all the hype, I still think that most babies will continue to be produced the old-fashioned way.

  28. #28 Jeanette
    February 9, 2009

    PZ, I LOVE that you’re grumpy. That’s the main thing I have in common with you, as a PZ Myers fan. I’m not a scientist, but I’m notoriously grumpy. GO GRUMPY PZ!!!

  29. #29 Liberal Atheist
    February 9, 2009

    Why are you saying Kurzweil is nutty? It seems very likely that the AI singularity will take place one day.

  30. #30 5keptical
    February 9, 2009

    Kurzweil is a computer age prophet preying on that stupid god-spot that takes ordinary people and stops them from thinking.

    He’s afraid of death and grasping at whatever he can, preaching his singularity vision wrapped in techno-babble to appeal to the techno-nerd.

    The words are different from those used on the bronze-age goat-herders(he has to operate on the current meme-set), but he provides the same emotional succor with just about as much basis in reality.

    Don’t take my word for it, go back and re-read his work critically – like you would a creationist biochemist…

  31. #31 Nepenthe
    February 9, 2009

    Oooo! Him!

    I had to read this whole thread saying in my head “Kurzweil, Kurzweil, why the hell do I know that name?” Then I remembered that I had to go muck out his Wikipedia page after he had let loose some semi-grammatical postings about his saintliness a few weeks ago. I dislike cranks. I dislike cranks who edit their own Wikipedia pages even more.

  32. #32 bad Jim
    February 9, 2009

    1. Fuck!

    2. The main alternatives to (1) involve the same strategy: introduce a host of spermatazoa to a clutch of ova. There are other techniques, some of which we’ve invented ourselves, others we’ve borrowed from parasites, but past the blastocyst phase we’re pretty much stuck with traditional gestation.

    3. Humans are not von Neumann machines. Even though the computers we’re buying now are becoming less von Neumann machines internally, applications remain single-threaded, whereas humans are massively parallel.

    We’ve got a long way to go to understand ourselves. Right now, the idea of digital immortality is indistinguishable from more traditional versions of the same desire: Lord, transcribe my soul.

  33. #33 Muffin
    February 9, 2009

    “And don’t get me started on Ray Kurzweil. That guy is bonkers.”

    Indeed – if anyone’s ever wondered how religions got started and what self-appointed gurus and their followers are like, this is the perfect example.

  34. #34 GS
    February 9, 2009

    There have ALWAYS been this crazy futuristic loonies that see the future. They have ALWAYS been very useful because they have ALWAYS been wrong. So if you want to know how the future will be like you just have to listen to them and you may be pretty sure the scenario they are selling (because there is ALWAYS money involved) will neve become a reality.

  35. #35 Lurky
    February 9, 2009

    bad jim @ #33

    3. Humans are not von Neumann machines. Even though the computers we’re buying now are becoming less von Neumann machines internally, applications remain single-threaded, whereas humans are massively parallel.

    I was going to post something along these lines about computer power vs. simulating the human brain, but you kinda got there first :)

  36. #36 Jeanette
    February 9, 2009

    …and I wear eyeglasses, too! They can make us stronger… they can make us faster…

  37. #37 cedgray
    February 9, 2009

    Natural selection doesn’t look into the future at all, and yet it manages to make genera/species that last for hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of years.

    Even with our present level of genetic understanding, we can see further ahead than natural selection, so why wouldn’t we have an advantage, and be able to ‘evolve’ at a swifter-than-natural rate?

    Sure, some resulting species might hit a wall and go kaplooie, but some won’t. And that’s all it takes. And the ones that don’t will actually be able to learn from the mistakes of the ones that go extinct.

    No other species can get even remotely close to that. We have a massive shared brain of knowledge that could last for the rest of history, if we’re careful. How can we not take ourselves into new directions and leave ‘old style’ selection in a rusty bucket out back?

  38. #39 Knockgoats
    February 9, 2009

    If Moore’s Law holds (and there is no reason to expect it shouldn’t) for the next 20 years (give or take a decade or two, depending on whether we’ve under- or over-estimated the complexity of the human mind), we will have a supercomputer with enough processing power to emulate the human mind in software. – Jbeaufort

    At least four problems here:
    1) The definition of “Moore’s Law” is very unclear. I won’t go into all the details because I can’t remember them, but there is no one “Moore’s Law”.
    2) Rock’s Law – which states that the cost of a silicon chip fabrication plant doubles every four years:
    http://news.zdnet.com/2100-9584_22-142082.html.
    Insofar as Moore’s Law has held, it has done so because the amount of capital invested in the semiconductor industry has increased very rapidly. It is unlikely to go on doing so at the same rate, because people still need to eat.
    3) Suppose we do have software that can emulate the human brain by the year 20xy. The only way we know to get human brains to do anything useful is through a long period of training, which often goes wrong. You think this is going to be easier with a simulated brain?
    4) Suppose we overcome this problem. OK, that will make a difference, but will it be the sort of radical difference Kurzweil thinks? No: he’s a victim, like many, of methodological individualism: difficult technical problems are not solved by individual geniuses working alone; human intelligence is fundamentally social, depending on physical and institutional infrastructure, so it is not limited by the cognitive capability of the individual brain. Is there any individual who understands – say – modern mathematics? No. Is modern mathematics understood? Yes – by the community of mathematicians. So even a “supergenius” computer won’t necessarily make the kind of difference Kurzweil posits, enabling a sudden “singularity” in technical advance.

    Kurzweil, basically, has an ego so vast that the thought he might cease to exist is intolerable to him – so he has to believe that technology will advance so fast that he, personally, can live for ever. My impression is that technical change is not speeding up: compare life in 1909, 1959, 2009 – I’d say the difference between the first two is probably greater than the second two. Compare 1809, 1909, 2009 – again, I’d say there was more difference between the first two than the second two.

  39. #40 DuckPhup
    February 9, 2009

    Were it not for the fact of us (Homo Rationalis) being able to produce offspring with them, I could be persuaded to regard the religious types as a different species. Homo Dumbassticus… or Homo Moronicus, perhaps.

  40. #41 Naked Bunny with a Whip
    February 9, 2009

    And don’t get me started on Ray Kurzweil.

    But it sounds so entertaining!

  41. #42 XiXiDu
    February 9, 2009

    I suggest everyone who wants to comment on this post to check out this special report:

    http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/jun08/singularity

  42. #43 bruce
    February 9, 2009

    > And don’t get me started on Ray Kurzweil. That guy is bonkers.

    I’ll tell you what is bonkers, and it is writing a essay about futurists and dismissing them with lines like this. if you are not bonkers, then surely you are not to be taken seriously, at least on this subject. Paticularly anything under the banner of:

    > Evolution, development, and random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal

    So obviously you are dealing in the universe of “popular” ideas, not hard science, yet I do not see one idea in your writing here that makes me think you take this seriously in the least.

    Kurxweil on the other hand has put years into his effort and has lots of other followers trying to entertain and change people’s ideas of what exactly is happening in the universe through communications on a variety of fronts. Which effort is more likely to prove useful bear fruit? Sort of obvious.

    So on the subject of futurists, if you are going to write about them, you might start with your ending sentence here and then try to prove your point however you can. I don’t think this essay really had a point other that stroking your own ego.

  43. #44 Lotharloo
    February 9, 2009

    Some of these futurists are bonkers. PZ is right on. To be concise, the probability that we as a species wipe ourselves out completely seems larger than the probability that the prediction of these futurists will come true.

    As another poster said, “where is flying car, daily meal injections, and hyperbaric clothing?”

    The truth is many of these futurists don’t have a clue regarding the technical difficulty of the advancements they are fantasizing about. All they do is to plot the past progress and then blindly extrapolate it. Why should we trust or even listen to a guy with zero experience in a field?

  44. #45 raven
    February 9, 2009

    Where is my flying car, dammit?

    Don’t sell scientific and technological progress short. On the scale of human attention, it doesn’t look like much happens. Even on the scale of human lifetimes, things are changing and that change is accelerating.

    When I was very young (boomer gen.), polio ran wild and the victims are still around us, people in their 50′s who limp a lot. Smallpox still existed. Computers were huge exotic devices costing millions. CV diseases commonly killed and all we could do is watch.

    Fast forward to 2009. Smallpox is extinct, polio would be except for third world bronze age societies who managed to acquire AK47s. Between lipitor, angioplasty, stents, and bypass, CV diseases are now no longer automatic death sentences.

    The next step will be quasi-immortality. We don’t understand aging, despite the plethora of theories. The fear of death is so pervasive, that if it is possible we will find it.

    Kurzweil is probably too optimistic. But we spent 2 million years in the stone age. Modern Hi Tech isn’t even a hundred years old. Check back in a thousand years, based on present trends, no one would recognize our society.

  45. #46 Sili
    February 9, 2009

    Well, ‘pods don’t make you cranky. And I think you like fluffy kittens, too. And who isn’t happy when munching ˇn a baby and kicking a puppy?

    SGU waxed fanboy over Kurtzweil, too, this week. I’ll laugh till I shit myself when he die of prostate cancer and vitamin poisoning from all those supplements he eats – and peddles to fools. Quack!

  46. #47 Liberal Atheist
    February 9, 2009

    Computers will soon surpass the human brain in computing power, and if exponential progress continues, a single computer could have the brainpower comparable to all human brains combined. It’s safe to assume that progress will continue when it comes to understanding the human brain and how it works, as well as other areas.

    If we can understand how our own intelligence works, and if computing power continues to grow as it has so far, then it seems very unlikely that we never will create an AI which eventually surpasses us.

  47. #48 Wowbagger
    February 9, 2009

    PZ, is your intention to get your name added to as many fringe groups’ hate lists as possible? In the last year or so you’ve irritated the creationists, the catholics and the libertarians, just to name a few.

    Now you want to add the futurists? Man, I’d watch out. They can probably build scary robots and stuff.

  48. #49 Danny
    February 9, 2009

    +1 on what Lotharloo (#45) said. Futurism would be more interesting if there was more science and less wishful thinking. PZ is right in criticizing Enriquez for his naive view of evolution and biology.

  49. #50 Tualha
    February 9, 2009

    Well, consider this. Is it not plausible that retroviral therapies for genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis will be practical, say within the next decade or so? Therapies that fix the damaging gene not only somatically but heritably as well? Is that not a form of directed evolution?

    Now take a small step beyond that and consider more elective therapies. You want your child to not need glasses as you do? Ok. You want her to avoid your blood sugar disorder and your family history of breast cancer? We can do that. You want her to be smarter than you? Some people are working on that, ask us again in five years.

    (Yes, I’m well aware that many parents would eschew the last option. It doesn’t matter how many don’t use it. All that matters is that some do. I’m also aware that mistakes will be made, and that some societies will outlaw such options. But not all will.)

    This is just scratching the surface of the possibilities. There’s plenty of reason to think that advanced nanotechnology will be practical and will let us rebuild ourselves in all kinds of ways, extend our lives indefinitely, and move our minds from the buggy, slow protein hardware we’re currently stuck with onto something faster and more reliable that can be backed up. At that point, biological evolution will hardly apply to us anymore. (Except, ironically, the religious ones who choose not to make use of these options.)

    I think you’ll probably see a fair amount of this in your lifetime, PZ.

  50. #51 Dustin
    February 9, 2009

    @ # 6

    “I’m curious as to what it is exactly about Ray Kurzweil that causes you to label him bonkers. I enjoy reading both yours and Ray’s thoughts, and consider you both intelligent and well spoken within your respective fields.”

    Anybody that advocated kangen water machines as a viable “heath promoting device” is missing a few marbles. Kurzweil may be a genius in some areas, but biology isn’t one of them.

  51. #52 XiXiDu
    February 9, 2009

    I wonder if anyone who posted on this topic yet would be opposed to the ideas of people like Kurzweil becoming reality. If he is bonkers but his depiction of the future is actually appealing, why don’t we try to implement it? If we already know he is wrong, we have a starting point to where to improve upon his ideas to envision the path we have to take to achieve utopia.

    Does anyone here want to die? Why not earlier than later then…

  52. #53 TheMissedCall
    February 9, 2009

    I always took the main point of futurists’ existence to be raising awareness of potential problems before they come to pass (if ever) so we can have the conversation and a plan in advance. They often sight the atomic bomb as an example of science that should have been better discussed *before* it was deployed. With that in mind, whether AI hits in the 2020′s or the 2220′s or 3220′s is less important than to have an idea how it would impact the economy and our lives and to aim for the most optimal integration of the new tech. I’d also like to point out that AI hardly needs to be on equal footing with the human brain to massively change employment (and that it?s not the only tech that would break down our prediction models.) Were it to hit in a recession or depression, when the economy is contracting, AI?s effects on the job market would make its impact all the more traumatic.

    Personally, I think we could get rid of a vast number of jobs tomorrow if we all were ok with more self service kiosks and home deliveries- but this raises ethical questions about the impact on business stakeholders (particularly employees and there communities). I prefer my selective pressures slow and steady.

  53. #54 Liberal Atheist
    February 9, 2009

    raven #46

    Indeed, technological progress is moving forward faster and faster all the time. Yet for some reason, people believe that it will slow down or even come to a halt right where we are today.

  54. #55 Tualha
    February 9, 2009

    Oh, I forgot – here’s a very amusing essay on the subject.

  55. #56 Ian Andreas Miller
    February 9, 2009

    And I don’t want to hear you complaining that everything makes me cranky! I get especially grumpy about armchair futurists making pronouncements about biology when they don’t know a thing about it.

    They are also making up Latin-like words when they don’t know a thing about the language.

    The random word “Evolutis” is making my Inner Latinist cranky.

  56. #57 Richard Healy
    February 9, 2009

    I was wondering where I new the name Kurzweil from….

    http://dresdencodak.com/cartoons/dc_034.htm

  57. #58 Stephen Couchman
    February 9, 2009

    Yes, Juan Enriquez is a little SciFi and gee-whiz in his projections, but in light of the “responsible reproduction” movement (i.e., once the risks associated with bioengineering to eliminate certain hereditary medical conditions drop below the likelihood of suffering from same, it becomes morally imperative to screen for those conditions and receive those therapies) opening the door to all sorts of on-demand baby-tinkering, how can eventual speciation be anything but certain? All most transhumanists posit is that human beings will engineer their own divergent evolutionary pathways instead of leaving the process up to natural selection. Not all of us think we’re going to be or give birth to the bloody X-Men (though I haven’t given up hoping for gills!).

  58. #59 Brian Coughlan
    February 9, 2009

    The words are different from those used on the bronze-age goat-herders(he has to operate on the current meme-set), but he provides the same emotional succor with just about as much basis in reality.

    While I recognise this theme/meme in much that Kurzweil does and says, I don’t think you can reasonably equate his position with that of your common or garden metaphysical nonsense. At least here, there is a technological path laid out to the singularity and eternal life (barring accidents). The things that he, and similar guys like Aubrey de Grey, maintain may be wierd … but they are far more grounded in physical reality than say, the Anglican Church.

    Eventually, a range of obvious assumptions given, some humans may be able to clone their bodies, upload their minds and essentially live for ever. While, It’s pretty certain that Jesus/Allah/Krishna are not coming to sweep us off to heaven.

  59. #60 ivo
    February 9, 2009

    Homo evolutus would be latin, I think. However, ”evolutis” is still the closest he comes to making actual sense.

  60. #61 Lumifish
    February 9, 2009

    As a geneticist, futurist and a /realist/, I am also exceptionally irritated by such displays of ignorance. Please don’t take the whimsical armchair philosophers as representative of the whole movement, P.Z! There are those of us that just think it would be cool to improve our biological systems without all the added ‘Singularity’ baggage and other waffle– Aubrey de Grey comes to mind.

  61. #62 george.w
    February 9, 2009

    OK, Kurzweil has an assistant who follows him around and schedules his intake of, like, 50 pills a day that he takes to try to live long enough to see the “singularity”. It’s so much like Christians trying to catch a glimpse of the Second Coming that it’s painful.

    That said, he spoke at our university last year and was very interesting, if loopy. He demonstrated his new text readers – a major boon to sight-impaired people for reading text, and it was awesome. That technology is available now, and will eventually be integrated into something sleek like a pair of eyeglasses.

    Very forward-thinking stuff, but I just visited his educational systems website and it’s all done in handicap-difficult nested table layout. Funny.

  62. #63 ivo
    February 9, 2009

    I second Tony Sidaway: Lem’s The futurological congress is lovely. It should be made compulsory reading for all wanna-be futurologists, too. By the way, Stanislaw Lem himself was a quite interesting and reasonable futurologist himself.

  63. #64 Alan Kellogg
    February 9, 2009

    There will be no uploading of minds into computers. That is for a very simple reason, the map is not the terrain. A recording is not the event, it is a representation of the event. A mind is not a thing, but a dynamic process. A mind, a personality is an ever changing thing, those changes informed and shaped by events. And even if we were ever able to record a mind, it wouldn’t be the person who’s mind we’re recording. He will still be there; still breathing, still eating, still a unique individual. The act of replication does not destroy the original, and even if it did, it would not make the copy the original. So no uploading.

    As for the singularity, it’s already happening. The singularity began with the first towns, when humans gathered into communities so large the old, informal, ways of human interaction no longer sufficed. We had to devise new ways of getting along and regulating interpersonal relationships, based on the old ways much as human arms are highly modified cynodont forelegs. We are still in the process of changing, and how our descendants will come out cannot be known to us.

    One last thing. Until we figure out how neurons work, we will never have computers or computer nets as capable as a human brain.

  64. #65 DrFrank
    February 9, 2009

    J.Beaufort@#6
    We are already able to emulate large sections of mammalian brains within a computer.
    Not without *enormous* simplifications of neuronal behaviour that renders the rest of the arguments meaningless. The state of AI is still, in meaningful terms, still pretty pitiful. And I say that as someone who’s been involved in both AI and computational neuroscience.

    As such, I’m definitely with PZ on the “Kurzweil is full of crap” point.

    I’d like to be proved wrong on this, but I strongly suspect that I won’t.

  65. #66 Jbeaufort
    February 9, 2009

    Knockgoats, some good points you have. Let me respond:

    1) Moore’s Law simply states that the number of transistors that can be placed on a chip inexpensively on a chip doubles every two years. This has held true over time, and is expected to hold true for at least 10 years. There may be a bit of faith required in thinking the law will hold true past that, as new technologies will be required to get past various hurdles, but Moore’s Law has faced similar challenges in the past and still held true. True, the cost of building the plants to manufacture them has gone up, but the chips themselves have remained relatively inexpensive and have continued to double every two years. Even if the law were to slow down (and there is no precedent for this since 1965), we’re talking only about a delay, not an outright halt.

    Perhaps the reason why you think there is no one Moore’s Law is that it has been so successful a law that variations of it can be applied to almost every region of computing technology, such as memory size, hard drive speeds, network speeds, etc.

    That said, I overreached when I said there is no reason to expect Moore’s Law to fail. But I certainly wouldn’t bet against it, seeing as it has yet to fail despite the doomsayers who have been saying that it is about to pretty much every year since 1965.

    2) Again, fabrication plant cost have risen, as you’ve said, but the cost of the chips themselves has not followed suit. (Don’t ask me why, I’m not an economist. Perhaps it is simply a volume thing, we need more chips the farther along we go down the path of history)

    3) Yes, it is easier with an electronic brain, simply because if a training path fails, you do not have to start all over. You simply back track to the point of failure and start again. Also, computer brains operate FAR faster than human brains (Our only advantage today is a matter of parallel processing, something that multi-core processors and computer chip designs that emulate the neural network in our brains will make short work of in the very near future), so the time to train an electronic brain operates at computer speed, not on our limited perception of time.

    4) A couple of thoughts here. First, Yes it will be a fundamental shift in the way we think about consciousness. With an electronic brain, you can take a snapshot of it and copy and paste the same mind an infinite number of times. The “uniqueness” of a thinking mind that we all take for granted, simply because there are no duplicate “me”s walking around planet Earth, will be blown to smithereens.

    Second, of course we are social beings, but electronic brains can be as well. The work going on in the field uses 3D environments, such as Unreal Tournament (See this article for an example of the research going on) to provide a social and virtual environment for the electronic mind to learn in.

    Third, perhaps the real ground-shaking effect will not be us creating a mind that thinks at a level equal to us, but it will be us then taking that mind and enhancing it, making it think faster, more clearly, and without the flaws in behavioral psychology that our minds possess as a result of the simply “good-enough” steering force of evolution.

    Predicting the repercussions of this event is nearly impossible, and attempting to can make the sanest person sound like a raving lunatic, which I expect is partly why people like Kurzweil get labelled with terms like “bonkers”.

    That said, you probably have to be at least a little nutty to even try, and Ray also seems to have a real love for the sound of his own voice at times (Although some might argue that that just puts him in line with the 6 billion or so other sentient apes on this planet).

    Personally, I think even some of the byproducts of an attempt to create a computer that understands us the way we understand ourselves will have huge life-changing effects. Imagine each child having a personal computer tutor that can instruct them and answer any question they have using the best knowledge available (Of course then you get into a question of trust, and any solution worth its billing should be open source, to limit malicious tampering). Or imagine a robot that can keep the elderly company, talking to them, showing compassion (The Japanese are hard at work on this very task right now) and companionship. The possibilities are endless, for good or for ill.

    Finally, you say that the first half of the 20th century had more change than the latter half. I couldn’t disagree with you more. It’s just that the changes in recent decades are more subtle and more numerous. Take one invention, the internet (and the World Wide Web in particular). I think the internet has had an impact on us that changes the rules of the game more than any other technological invention since the printing press.

  66. #67 Brian Coughlan
    February 9, 2009

    There will be no uploading of minds into computers. That is for a very simple reason, the map is not the terrain. A recording is not the event, it is a representation of the event. A mind is not a thing, but a dynamic process.

    This kind of assertion is silly regardless of the direction or source. Prediction can go either way; think heavier than air flight, then for balance, think nuclear fusion or the colonisation of the moon.

    Off the top of my head I can think of at least one way to work around the problem you’ve touched on here. Something entirely common or garden that society already does. Legislation. When uploading, the original body (and brain) has to go. It becomes the law. A whole SF series could be based on that simple premise. The social implications, the agony of choice, the risks associated with transfer, and of course the big one, accidental survival of earlier (but of physically course older!) versions of oneself.

    Kurzweil and Co. may be off as regards the timing and technology (or they may not!) but barring the extinction of the human race, some craaaazy shit is on the way. Fer sure.

  67. #68 Morgan
    February 9, 2009

    The act of replication does not destroy the original, and even if it did, it would not make the copy the original. So no uploading.

    The second sentence doesn’t follow from the first – it just says that uploading gives you a second person who only has less claim to the identity it remembers than the meatbag still present because the meatbag has the advantage of continuity. Saying the uploaded consciousness is “not the original” misses the point. The point is that the concept of being the “original” suddenly needs defining. You’re not saying uploading is impossible but that it’ll be weird and challenging, which we already know.

  68. #69 XiXiDu
    February 9, 2009

    Here is a nice piece of futurism:

    http://www.edge.org/q2009/q09_index.html (151 CONTRIBUTORS)

    WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING?

    “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?”

    They asked a lot of popular people this question.

  69. #70 DaveX
    February 9, 2009

    I’m also very curious about the Kurzweil “bonkers” comment, PZ. What’s Kurzweil done to warrant such a dismissive tone?

  70. #71 TX CHL Instructor
    February 9, 2009

    HE FUTURE ISN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE
    (chords: G C D [D7] bridges: Em C D D7)

    MP3 at: http://www.minstrosity.com/Future.mp3

    INTRO: Way back in the 1940′s there were lots of magazines
    With their covers full of miracles and futuristic scenes
    Individual flying cars that safely flew themselves
    And folded into suitcases you stuck upon your shelves.

    Cures for everything from shingles to the common cold
    And lively centenarians you’d never dare call “old”
    Yes they all predicted wonders for the 21st century
    But it seems to me the future isn’t what it used to be:

    1. What became of monorails?
    Wristwatch phones and solar sails?
    The end of dental cavities and juvenile acne?
    How ’bout terraforming Mars? What about those flying cars?
    The future isn’t what it used to be.

    Br. 1 Computers big as buildings that controlled our very lives
    Everything from what we’d eat to who’d become our wives

    2. Where’s my robot serving girls?
    Weekend trips to other worlds?
    Feelie-smellie films and three-dimensional TV?
    Worldwide air-conditioned air? Throwaway paper underwear?
    The future isn’t what it used to be.

    Br. 2 And didn’t I hear somewhere that they froze Walt Disney’s head
    (so that) By the year 2000 he’d be something else than dead?

    3. Farms run by remote control?
    Live forever rock’n’roll?
    Wasn’t California s’posed to sink into the sea?
    Where’s the thing so from your car you’ll reset your VCR?
    The future isn’t what it used to be.

    Br. 3 (Instrumental)

    4. Where’s that cure for cancer now?
    How ’bout AIDS and ol’ mad cow?
    Me I’ll just be glad if this song cures my poverty.
    I wonder where the starships are?
    Where the HELL’s my flying car?
    The future isn’t what it used to be.

    Ending The future isn’t what it used
    Ev’rybody needs a boost
    Haven’t you read Marcel Proust?
    Might as well just go get juiced

    The future isn’t what it used to be.

  71. #72 Brian Coughlan
    February 9, 2009

    HE FUTURE ISN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE

    Case in point! About 30% of the stuff this guy laments being absent, is already around.

    My phone isn’t the size of a wrist watch because it’s got about a million alternate functions never imagined in the 1940′s.

    Robots? I’ve got a Roomba (which I love), the first one broke down in about a year, but the 3rd Gen Roomba is now an integral part of cleaning routine and is well into it’s 2nd year. I’d have a robot lawnmower if I didn’t need the exercise, and hordes of Japanese old folks are already being at least partially tended by cuddly robot friends.

    As for that flying car? Tied up in red tape, and environmental concerns, but its been built and it could be mass produced today.

  72. #73 'Tis Himself
    February 9, 2009

    My problem with the futurists is they don’t think far enough. It’s possible to look at the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk and picture 747s, it’s harder to extrapolate F-15s.

  73. #74 JJ
    February 9, 2009

    Brownian (#13), according to SF writer Ken MacLeod the idea is from Asimov .

    To people who honestly thinks PZ is being unjust to Kurzweil, I highly recommend Scott Aaronson blog post: The singularity is Far.

  74. #75 DavidONE
    February 9, 2009

    > Ray Kurzweil. … is bonkers.

    Damn. And there was me saving up for a dose of nanobots to make me live forever.

  75. #76 10ch.org
    February 9, 2009

    Hey, at least they’re not INTENTIONALLY ignorant, unlike some people on this earth who willingly ignore the truth…

  76. #77 Jack
    February 9, 2009

    Oh, please get him started on Ray Kurzweil. I want to be entertained.

  77. #78 300baud
    February 9, 2009

    Rats don’t fight to mate. They run. If they fight, they lose their chance to mate because the female has run away with a pack of males hot on her tail. The fighters get left behind.

  78. #79 DaveX
    February 9, 2009

    @ #75–

    From my reading, the author is just more pessimistic than Ray. Not much of an argument, really. Let’s have some more discussion on this– taking down creationist folks is like shooting fish in a barrel. If you’re going after Kurzweil, I’m asking that you set the bar quite a bit higher.

  79. #80 mndean
    February 9, 2009

    And don’t get me started on Ray Kurzweil. That guy is bonkers.

    Oh, I wish you hadn’t opened that can of worms, PZ. Many of the comments it has already generated have been pseudoreligious in tone or content. Some people shouldn’t dabble in fields that they have no business in, but Kurzweil does it far too often. He does gather up a lot of folks too starstruck and narcissistic to see the contradictions in what he proposes.

  80. #81 Greta Christina
    February 9, 2009

    And I have pins in my elbow from when it got broken. Does that make me a cyborg?

    As to transhumanist predictions for amazing technological advances that will radically change our very identity as humans: I’ll believe it when I see it.

    And I don’t mean that in a snarky way. (Well, only a little). I mean it sincerely and literally. When and if it happens, I will believe it. But futurists’ track records are so laughably bad — flying cars and washable homes, but no Internet or Tivo — and I have no reason to think the transhumanist predictions are plausible until I see them happening. When and if I do, then I’ll believe them.

  81. #82 XiXiDu
    February 9, 2009

    Not true #82 Greta Christina, I don’t have the resources at hand and don’t care much, but I’d not blazon out that all too loud.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/17/science/17mund.html?_r=4&oref=slogin&ref=science&pagewanted=all

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_C._Clarke
    ^Here another example (Clarke Orbit…)

    And don’t forget Stanislaw Lem and many others that even saw much like eBay, mobiles etc coming.

  82. #83 Blake Stacey
    February 9, 2009

    Funnily enough, if you Google “pz myers ray kurzweil”, you can find relevant and informative results on the first page of hits.

    Other incendiary remarks:

    1. Surgical modification and prosthetic augmentation of the human body does not constitute “speciation”.

    2. Neither does gene therapy outside the germline.

    3. Moore’s Law has been becoming less and less relevant with every passing year. The major social changes wrought by the Internet during this century have not been driven by increases in the number of transistors per square centimetre per dollar, but by (a) increased mass storage capacity and (b) improvements in large-scale interconnectivity among computers.

  83. #84 JJ
    February 9, 2009

    I have no problems with the singularity idea, thought I personally find it naive, especially the short time frame proposed. What really makes my blood boils is the obvious snake oil selling bussiness guys like Kurzweil or Drexler are doing. The last sample is this, the opening of the Singularity University . From the Slashdot summary:

    Slatterz and Keith Kleiner were among several readers to send in word of Singularity University, announced at TED today by Ray Kurzweil. He and X Prize founder Peter Diamandis began talking about creating the school last year, after Diamandis read Kurzweil’s 2005 book The Singularity is Near. NASA and Google are both supporting the project, NASA with space and Google with cash. The school aims to foster “disruptive innovation.” As envisioned, Singularity U. will sponsor 3-day and 10-day courses for executives year-round, and its main offering will be a single 9-week course of study over the summer for 120 students, each of which will pay $25,000 for the privilege. Announced faculty so far includes Nobel Prize winning physicist George Smoot, NASA Ames chief scientist Stephanie Langhoff, Vint Cerf, and Will Wright, creator of the video games Spore and The Sims.

    See, why spend years of hard work in an old discipline like maths, physics, biology or engineering if you can attend 9 week course on the singularity for a bargain price?

  84. #85 Dan!
    February 9, 2009

    HAHA! PZ FINALLY uses an article I forwarded! WIN!

    Although I’m sure others had too. I think I came across it on digg.com

  85. #86 DaveX
    February 9, 2009

    @#85–

    As I understood it, Singularity University is intended as something like graduate level study– isn’t it intended to focus on creatively combining these disciplines, rather than teaching them individually? If you’re going the ad absurdum route, you’re no better than the “life didn’t come from green slime” people.

  86. #87 Brian Coughlan
    February 9, 2009

    What a total shit stirrer PZ is. He’s split the PeeZee party into singularity factions. I’m with the pre-millenial LISP sensationalists.

  87. #88 Reader5000
    February 9, 2009

    @39
    Jamais Cascio has a nice critique of that “university” (read “tech MBA seminar series”). http://www.openthefuture.com/2009/02/flunking_out.html

    @20
    Doctor J, is cool. I’d also recommend Mr. Cascio. See link above for his thoughtful website.

    Some of these pioneers seem to care about justice, including justice for those of us who see no reason to fix what ain’t broke.

    When the interpersonal Cold War of human enhancement gets hot, I hope there are giants around who will fight to keep us old-fashioned humans from being either exterminated or permanently unemployed.

    But I’m a lot less worried about runaway engineering since I’ve found out that people don’t even agree about what is meant by the term “Technological Singularity”. It suggests that no single one of these new technologies (if they even happen) will be The One.

  88. #89 Joseph
    February 9, 2009

    I don’t have a dog in the Ray Kurzweil fight, but you’re very wrong to dismiss Transhumanism so lightly. The sort of speciation Enriquez is talking about could very well come about. Naturally, surgical and pharmaceutical enhancements don’t have anything to do with speciation, for the reasons others have already posted. But we are on the verge of being able to conduct serious germline genetic engineering. If it doesn’t get squashed by governments enforcing some sort of religiously-based anethema to “playing god”, that is…

  89. #90 AJ Milne
    February 9, 2009

    JJ at #75, thanks for that.

    Favourite line:

    Also, if the Singularity ever does arrive, I expect it to be plagued by frequent outages and terrible customer service.

    I’m duly amused by his brief musing on mere tempermament/life experience re attitudes toward futurism. Probably more than a bit of somethin’ to that, really…

    Speaking of: me, I tend to find myself reminding myself of certain more sobering observations, whenever I hear these guys waxing poetic about what may become possible oh just around the next corner, really: that we are, after all, still essentially slightly neotenous cousins to chimps, ice age hunters only recently descended from the trees prior to that, really only so good on our feet down here after so relatively little time–and clever, but not very wise, to boot. And to continue with the standard tropes that accompany these: that mother nature always bats last, and Vonnegut’s Galapagos probably sketches about as plausible a future for us as do the fever dreams of Wired Magazine’s endlessly optimistic technophiles (if not more so)…

    Sure, I’m delighted by so much of what we’ve pulled off, from the Mars rovers to the mapping of E coli’s genome to the working out of the broad strokes of descendance and interrlatedness within the living things of our biota, beyond fascinated when we catch bits of the spectra of exoplanet atmospheres, as much as any geek who’s just got such and such a program to work right for the first time. And I really, really hope to live to see the first report of free oxygen on the surface in some distant blue orb (or parallel indication of some other, rather more exotic form of life), and might even say I think this less unlikely, now, but I don’t think we should get too far ahead of ourselves, when we do achieve such things. The whole of our written history is still just a infinitesimal blip in the whole of deep time, and nothing yet says it will necessarily ever be much more than this. It stretches our limited simian brain’s capacity to plan for next year, let alone next century, and increasingly, it looks as though we must. That’s the real challenge, and a challenge in the here and now, and though our technologies provide some very limited assistance, there, it isn’t much against that rather unforgiving reality.

    Beyond this, if resources are limited, we will quarrel. And they will be. And you can extend that to: if anything is limited, whether or not we really need it terribly much, we will quarrel. And it will be. So there will be no utopia for our species, even if we do get fusion power working cleanly enough to use and somehow stablize population size against practical food production and the environment’s capacity to absorb our various wastes–which, now that you mention it, also seems pretty unlikely, right now…

    Anyway, yeah. The singularity. Let’s get right on that.

    I’d add that I find a certain dark poetry to the fact that our instruments and techniques for the potential detection of life on distant plants are reaching the point they are right now: for if we do discover in a few years or so that we are getting signatures hither and yon suggesting life is not uncommon in the galaxy, it will add a certain edge to Fermi’s paradox: where are they indeed? For from our limited experience as yet, life may be inevitable, and civilizations like ours inevitably fleeting. The very curiosity and dynamism that drives us to build radio telescopes may also drive us to ensure there’s no one much left around to listen to them for much more than a century or two after we get there…

    Anyway. Your required dose of pessimism. Futurists are fun, ‘n all, but usually, I find myself thinking only wish I could live in the world they do. It sure looks nice, over there.

  90. #91 XiXiDu
    February 9, 2009

    DaveX, that happens when PZ Myers adherer think they have to bash some occult sect that is on the verge of wrecking science. They assume that must be the case when Myers dislikes something.

    If I read another comment in which someone is mentioning flying cars I’ll take my copy of The Singularity is Near and sacrifice it to the Eschaton (aka Google) so that it strikes the servers this blog is hosted on with thunderbolt.

  91. #92 Julian
    February 9, 2009

    What’s wrong about the futurists is 1) the ease with which they think genetic engineering can be utilized and 2) their conviction that phenotypic expression can be passed on.

    I’m not even talking about surgery necessarily. For instance, the genes coding for the production of sperm would likely remain unaffected by, say, gene therapy designed to strengthen the muscular walls around the spinal cord and, thus, alleviate humanity’s perennial back problems. In a similar way, it could in no way alter the coding within the female egg as they are all produced before birth. Even when we come to possess the know how to rely heavily on genetic alteration as medicine, and except for a few select cases that is very far down the road, ensuring heritability is a much more complex and difficult problem.

    Not that genetic therapy and manipulation itself would be easy. As Dr. Myers has pointed out here before, genes rarely serve discreet functions, but instead operate as a whole to provide a template for growth which cell-reproduction is checked against during the process of division. In other words, even a seemingly simple alteration could require hundreds of thousands of alterations, each of which could have secondary effects which bar any attempt to use a single retro-virus to carry them all.

    Even the phenotypic consideration for genetic engineering are considerable. Consider the eye. If you want to have the vision of a hawk, you don’t merely need a hawk’s eye; you need the muscles surrounding the eye which allow for a greater focus and range of motion. You need more and larger nerve connections to carry the increase information plus the full color, motion sensitive, pattern recognition we currently possess. You need a larger and more varied optical lobe to process and censor the added information so that it is comprehensible to the rest of the brain without obstructing or obscuring our current vision and visual-cognitive functions, which necessitates new connections and neurons within the brain. A hawk’s eyes are also much larger relative to its head that a human’s are, which means that the entire skeletal and muscular structure of the human face would need to be altered to make room for eyes large enough to take in the required information. The heart would need to be expanded, our metabolism sped up, and our food intact increased so that enough food can be provided to the brain to maintain not only a highly developed personality-center and logic core, but also the expanded optical interpretation output. This might necessitate larger or more numerous circulatory canals to the brain itself, which of course, would need a larger skull to house it. More blood requires stronger or more efficient lungs to oxygenate it all fast enough to prevent minor interruptions or slow downs which could cause stroking. These then require alterations in the muscular and skeletal supports which house and operate them.

    Its fun to think about these things which the futurists and transhumanists dream about, but we should not forget that the body is a complex, non-discreet, integrated system, carefully balanced through millions of years of evolution to provide both survivability and economy. Even when we eventually reach the level of understanding in this field necessary to alter our bodies through changing cellular encoding, and baring sudden extinction I see no reason why we would not, genetic therapy and manipulation will never be anything but a long, arduous, and meticulous process.

  92. #93 Nessa
    February 9, 2009

    Haha! Homo sanscecum! Good one. :D

  93. #94 Dianne
    February 9, 2009

    Humanity has already spawned a new species. About 50 years ago, surgeons cut a cancerous cervix out of a woman. They plopped some of the tissue in a cell culture dish. Unusually for the time, it grew. And grew. And mutated. It is now known as the Hela cell line and, at least controversially, is a new species, quite separate from humans if deriving from them. The next step in human evolution is…something resembling an amoeba.

  94. #95 JJ
    February 9, 2009

    @ Dear #87.

    Ah combining disciplines, this is so novel. Thanks FSM for Kurzweil. Next thing you know complete laboratories and departments will be founded in Tissue Engineering, Bioengineering, MEMS, quantum computing,all with faculty and peer reviewed articles!! And oh my, the executive courses!, each MBA educated on the singularity will guarantee a sure scientific impact.

  95. #96 george
    February 9, 2009

    The primary issue with Kurzweil is that he acts as though the exponential growth of technology HAS to continue, and that therefore, the singularity is inevitable.

    He uses some handwaving to ignore the criticism that those trends don’t need to continue just because they’ve gone on so far – we only have a few centuries of data to base that growth on – and environmental and other concerns are almost ignored by him and his ilk.

    However, I do think he makes some very valid points, and tons of his predictions about AI and what it’s capable of have and continue to come true. Also, I don’t see any reason why at least some of humanity might force its own “evolution” through gene therapy, life extension, etc. There’s nothing unusual about the idea, in my opinion, though I don’t really want to be involved in the results.

  96. #97 Brian Coughlan
    February 9, 2009

    Oh …. this has gotten downright bitchy.

    @ Dear #87.
    Ah combining disciplines, this is so novel. Thanks FSM for Kurzweil.

    You Go Girl!!

    Note : The term “bitchy” is now considered gender neutral and freely applicable to bitches of any of the existing sexual types. It’s use should not be construed as casting aspersions, on or patronising of, those that fate has alloted a vagina, instead that other thing.

  97. #98 fred ludd
    February 9, 2009

    Human-style intelligence has only been around for a moment in evolutionary time, and already the animal possessing it has the means to eliminate not only its own kind but all mammalian/reptilian/avian life. It’s obviously far too soon to say whether DNA’s experiment in our direction has been successful or not. Kurzweillian thinking, it seems to me, demonstrates severe lack of imagination: simply making us smarter, or smarter and more durable, might be a horrible mistake.

  98. #99 george
    February 9, 2009

    Whether it’s a mistake or not is hardly the point, Fred. If only we were so forward thinking as to consider the results of our technological progress! Just because it may not be a good idea doesn’t mean it’s not possible and won’t happen. If PZ is saying that Kurzweil is bonkers because he thinks such progress is a great idea and will bring about some sort of Utopia (which he does seem to think), then I can see where he’s coming from. If he thinks he’s bonkers because he imagines such technologies as age extension and human/machine hybrids and downloaded brains are impossible, I think that’s just naive.

  99. #100 Brian Coughlan
    February 9, 2009

    Kurzweillian thinking, it seems to me, demonstrates severe lack of imagination: simply making us smarter, or smarter and more durable, might be a horrible mistake.

    A mistake for whom? Making humans smarter and more durable? Unless this results in some kind of humanity terminating catastrophe, I really don’t see the downside.

  100. #101 Daniel M
    February 9, 2009

    what exactly is it about “the singularity” that makes people think it’s an either-or question?

    The simple idea is that at some point in the (near?) future, the pace of change becomes so fast as to transform society utterly in a very short space of time.

    Most people don’t disagree about the singularity, just how much of “a moment” it is and when it will arrive.

    One way (they say) of telling that it’s arrived (or is arriving) is the advent of certain technologies – strong AI, eternal life (or as near as we can get), zero-point energy (or at least very clean ubiquitous energy), gravitational control, functional nanobots – any one of which is a transformative force unlike anything seen before. Heck, one of them was “global worldwide realtime communication”, and I don’t think anyone could say with a straight face that mobile phones and the internet haven’t entirely changed society in many ways.

    It’s very, very unlikely that one day we’ll go to sleep and the next wake up with flying cars and cyborgs. If it happens at all, it will happen in stages, and to the people experiencing it, it will just be…life.

    the reason they’re not the enemy (in the way that religion and dogma are) is that they stand for finding out the science behind wonders and miracles that CAN happen through normal people getting their hands dirty.

    so, PZ, feel free to be cranky even after you’re sitting in your palace on the moon :) I’m pretty sure he’ll be cranky because they’d put PZ’s castle in Kurzweil Crater…

  101. #102 sean
    February 9, 2009
  102. #103 woody
    February 9, 2009

    Unless this results in some kind of humanity terminating catastrophe, I really don’t see the downside.

    On the evidence of history, I don’t see how humans would/could avoid turning any such biological developments into weapons.

    I hope there’s an interstellar pest-mobile stationed outside the van Allen belt somewhere with instructions to prevent the infection of humanity from leaving our planet, unless we fix it.

    “Humanity is a cosmic experiment testing whether life can survive intelligence. So far the null hypothesis is not threatened.” — Woody

  103. #104 Mobius
    February 9, 2009

    While I think there is no doubt that we as a species affect our own evolution, I don’t see any way we can predict which direction that evolution is going to take. Even with genetic engineering, the process of evolution is too chaotic. Each individual is going to have their own ideas about what should be engineered. It will take a long, long time to see what direction such changes will lead.

  104. #105 DaveX
    February 9, 2009

    JJ– You’ve shown the quality of your argument. A bit of snark, a little sarcasm.

    As for other discussion here, it seems that criticism of Kurzweil falls into a couple categories:

    1) He’s a weird guy that takes a lot of vitamins, and thus, is wrong.

    2) Various levels of pessimism/optimism about how long something like a singularity takes to arrive.

    Correct me if I’m wrong (and let’s just remember that I’m a stay-at-home dad, so I’m totally open to being wrong) but these don’t seem like quality criticism of Kurzweil’s ideas. While I don’t feel like taking a bag of vitamins each day, I am definitely intrigued by the concept of radically extending my life– it only seems natural to want to live longer and learn new things along the way. Science seems to continually break new ground on what IS/ISN’T considered possible, why shouldn’t our knowledge and technique improve along the way?

    Same thing for computing. In my own life, I’ve seen amazing progress. Again, I don’t see any sign of this progress stopping– not in computational speed, miniaturization of elements, or in potential applications.

    Maybe I’m getting flak on Pharyngula because I’m hopeful. Is this such a bad thing? Is there any reason not to be?

  105. #106 Brian Coughlan
    February 9, 2009

    I hope there’s an interstellar pest-mobile stationed outside the van Allen belt somewhere with instructions to prevent the infection of humanity from leaving our planet, unless we fix it.

    Unless you aren’t … you know … one of us humans, why would you consider this perspective a sensible one?

    Sure, if you’re Agent Smith , or maybe a tri-nippled aquatic Breem from Arcturus four, glumly anticipating a horde of savage humans descending on your planet … then I get it. Otherwise not so much.

  106. #107 ctenotrish
    February 9, 2009

    No no no! It is Homo nuevo. ’cause humans have stopped evolving and we need a new name, ya know.

  107. #108 Ukko
    February 9, 2009

    I was always curious about what has changed in artifitial intelligence in the past few years to make the strong AI hypothesis believable. Is of just wishful thinking?

  108. #109 300baud
    February 9, 2009

    The anti-transhumanists think we’re so damn smart already. Then why do we behave so stupidly? It is almost a joke to call ourselves conscious.

  109. #110 XiXiDu
    February 9, 2009

    Ukko, I would think it is mainly progress and anticipated progress in neuroscience due to advances on many other fields supporting these advances. The brain is only so complex and thus people think that there inevitable will come a time when we understand it to an extent that we can use this knowledge to create truly intelligent (whatever that means) entities, which will in turn mean that intelligence will be a commodity we can apply as we can apply electricity right now.

  110. #111 Helioprogenus
    February 9, 2009

    It’s ok, cause he’s a member of Homo Moronicus.

  111. #112 jj
    February 9, 2009

    Hah. I wear eyeglasses. I declare that I am a member of Homo oculis! I read and communicate with text, so I’m now a member of Homo literatus! I’ve had my appendix removed, therefore I am part of the bold vanguard of Homo sanscecum!

    CYBORG!

  112. #113 Andy
    February 9, 2009

    I love your blog, but it’s always easier to point out inaccuracies than to express one’s agreement: Cecum?appendix. That’s all.

  113. #114 Tulse
    February 9, 2009

    It is Homo nuevo.

    All new humans are Spanish?

  114. #115 Sarcastro
    February 9, 2009

    1. Be like your ancestors or be different. It doesn’t matter.
    2. Lay a million eggs or give birth to one. So shall your species survive.
    3. Wear gaudy colors or avoid display. It’s all the same.
    4. We must repeat.

  115. #116 chris
    February 9, 2009

    You know what makes me cranky? Writers who do this:

    What makes this species so unique is that it…

    As if there are degrees of uniqueness. Here’s what Webster says:

    Being without a like or equal; unmatched; unequaled; unparalleled; single in kind or excellence; sole.

    Something can’t be more unique than something else. A home can’t have “very unique” features. A species can’t be “so unique” because that implies there is some other species that is unique, just not as unique as this one.

    And don’t get me started on lay and lie.

  116. #117 abb3w
    February 9, 2009

    Kurzweil ignores too many thermodynamic limitations; Vinge is a more solid thinker, and is fairly careful to keep his Science Fiction clearly marked as such.

  117. #118 Big City
    February 9, 2009

    Fuck this ignorant post, and fuck all you grinning lemmings following PZ off the cliff.

  118. #119 Ken Cope
    February 9, 2009

    abb3w, you beat me to it; Kurzweil is cashing in on Vinge’s original SF tropes (from True Names to Rainbow’s End), with all the creativity of a fine and talented engineer.

  119. #120 Steve_C
    February 9, 2009

    Which fucking cliff is that big city douche bag?

  120. #121 GILGAMESH
    February 9, 2009

    Lighten up PZ. It seems to me that the TED talks are a forum to air ideas that may not be extremely well thought out, not to secure funding for speculative science, but as a venue for brainstorming. Isaac Asimov’s idea for a communications satellite was considered ridiculous at first. With all due respect sir, you may be turning into a curmudgeon.

  121. #122 Peter Ashby
    February 9, 2009

    DaveX the point is that while you should have an open mind, it shouldn’t be so open your brains and critical reasoning facility fall out. The problem with people like Kurzweil is his lack of evidence, not to mention all the evidence against him. Like the study on taking beta-carotene that was stopped early because those taking the pills were more likely to get cancer. Or all the studies showing no benefit from popping VitC.

    The only ways we know of to ensure a long life are:
    1. Have good genetics.

    2. Dietary restriction, but like seriously small amounts of food. So small that ensuring you eat sufficient micronutrients is difficult.

    So in practice you should ensure you choose your parents very wisely and having done so ensure you eat a good diet rich in fruit and veg along with whole grains and little but some meat, dairy products optional (see choosing ones parents) along with ensuring you exercise moderately, have never smoked and staying off the booze completely would be best.

    But life has to be enjoyed too or else what is the point and few choices are binary good or bad. For eg mouthwash is demonstrably good for me since using it has stopped my gum disease but it has alcohol in it which raises my risk of mouth cancer but so do all the infections you get through bad gums. Broccoli is almost certainly good for you, so should you eat it even if you don’t like it? (see parents again, it’s genetic). Life is never simple, so stop worrying and enjoy your life while being wary of snake oil sellers promising the miraculous on flimsy but plausible on the surface reasons. Lots of stuff stands to reason but is still hogwash if the premises are bogus.

  122. #123 Max
    February 9, 2009

    This reminds me of something from the sitcom The Big Bang Theory.
    “Now, I’m not saying that I represent a new species, a “Homo novis,” if you will… no, that’s for the anthropologists to decide.”

    Seriously though, I think that armchair futurism is fun. And probably not that far off. Frankly, genetically engineering your own species is completely different from a rat or what have you and its struggle to survive.

    Although
    a) People should call transhumanism and its ilk what it is… EUGENICS.
    b) And yes, the last bit with the knee tendons is a bit Lamarckian.

  123. #124 AJ Milne
    February 9, 2009

    Which fucking cliff is that big city douche bag?

    Dude, ignore it. I’m pretty sure that’s just the auto-flamebot. Does this random stuff, once in a while…

    Goes awry, once in a while… I mean, last month, it did this ‘Die, ignorant pig, that’s just your fucked-up opinion!’ thing in response to a metapost warning us the comment system was slightly bolluxed… But what can ya do?

    (Or, I mean, I’m assuming that, anyway. Since the alternative explanation is that apparently humans can get all tribal ‘n heated even over whether a futurist is leaning a bit forward on his skis… And that truly would be a depressing indicator re the prognosis for our species surviving…)

  124. #125 Ken Cope
    February 9, 2009

    Gilgamesh @122, you misspelled Arthur C. Clarke.

  125. #126 Peter B
    February 9, 2009

    Yes, rubbers and glasses and medications don?t yet make us a new species. But don?t tell me our hard-fought proficiency for family planning does not set us apart, foresight-wise, from a rat colony breeding at full speed, collapsing, and overbreeding again.

    Kurzweil is not my favorite futurologist. That he apparently fell for the ?alkaline water as antioxidant? health scam casts a light on the limits of his expertise. But he?s lucid enough to see that the exponential increase in affordable computing resources at some point translates into qualitative breakthroughs in other fields of science.

    If I plan to modify myself or my offspring e.g. for permanently stronger venous valves, safety concerns call for a way to predict the outcome of a genetic change with high accuracy. This can be achieved by a combination of molecular simulation (of structure and folding dynamics) and a biokinetic model of how the concentrations of ions, molecules, and organelle and cell types disperse throughout the cell compartments and tissues. The mathematical bases thereof are known, or can be further refined from observation with relative ease. Right now the behavior of biofilms, bacterial genetic networks, and protein complexes at atomic resolution can be simulated. All that?s missing, aside from better gene vectors, is scaling: enough brute-force computing power to pull it off for eukaryotic cells and human physiological complexity. We won?t need artificial general intelligence for that.

    OTOH, neuroscience does lack the detailed understanding of how synaptic activity patterns give rise to mental faculties, for their redesign. But this challenge is likewise amenable to computational research efforts such as the Blue Brain project.

    According to #93, even a simple mod could require hundreds of thousands of gene alterations. I doubt it. Evolution occurs through a series of single mutations which have to be either beneficial or at least not noticeably deleterious to get fixed in a population. If two different mutated alleles existed in two individuals of the same species, and if these alleles were beneficial together in one descendant but debilitating in separation, both alleles would go extinct unless the population were extremely small. There has been a path to our current evolutionary state under these severe constraints. Why shouldn?t there be paths to further desirable changes using few alterations at once, or even just one? Will the improvements to health and abilities be incremental, too? Maybe so. That?s better than nothing in my book.

    Once we start relocalizing mitochondrial genes to the nucleus for damage protection, or insert artificial chromosomes into our cells and make it heritable, there won?t be just one new species but millions of them (given that species = population all of whose individuals can produce fertile offspring without technical assistance). I hope it will happen ? for everyone who wants it regardless of income level. There is a future among the stars in store for our descendants, if and only if we can make ourselves more rational and long-lived than allowed by the aimless forces of natural evolution alone.

  126. #127 GILGAMESH
    February 9, 2009

    OOPS!
    Thank you Mr. Cope, I knew it was one of those dudes. I’ve been up all night sitting with my father, I had better get some sleep.

  127. #128 Funnyguts
    February 9, 2009

    @ Max 124: Transhumanism != eugenics. There could be a eugenics part attached, but no writer I know of suggests it. Transhumanism in the more liberal/libertarian sense is to allow each individual control over his/her body, not to change the population in general.

  128. #129 raven
    February 9, 2009

    big city the eloi:

    Fuck this ignorant post, and fuck all you grinning lemmings following PZ off the cliff.

    Humans are rapidly speciating into morlocks and eloi. Oh look, there is an example of Homo moronicus. Must have fallen down an airshaft or something.

  129. #130 Mike Caton
    February 9, 2009

    I agree with PZ totally. These postdotcom programmer transhumanist extropy singularity types think that the world is programmable, and it’s not. The real world, biology especially, is a mess, loaded with specialized language that’s not a barrier but rather necessary to accurately describe detail that can’t be deduced from first principles. I sometimes ponder that when these guys and gals engage in a form of language that doesn’t have to compile, they don’t worry about accuracy. It’s a mess, and there are constraints on the manipulation of matter. Drew Endy poked one of the biggest holes ever in this idea that we’re approaching some kind of takeoff when he asked how, exactly, we’re going to power the singularity.

    http://luckyatheist.blogspot.com

  130. #131 CJO
    February 9, 2009

    Read Stross and Vinge, yea, even Sterling, for your transhumanist entertainments. Then, suitably refreshed, sit down for a hard think about how we’re going to get to anything resembling this Singularity across the next fifty years. These are going to be some harrowing decades, folks, and we can’t even give everyone enough food and clean water right now. Arable land and fresh water resources aren’t something these pie-in-the-sky types talk about that much, but they’re a hell of a lot more relevant to continued human progress than strong-AI and nanotech. A very bad crash looks much more plausible to me than a secret door in reality suddenly opening up and leading us to utopia.

  131. #132 Andrew
    February 9, 2009

    The major “evidence” for the coming singularity seems to be this graph: http://singularity.com/charts/page19.html

    It’s bullshit. It supposedly has 15 different lists of key events, but there’s a hell of a lot of overlap; the lists aren’t independent. Several of them start with the big bang. Events are cherry picked to coincide with the log scale; dates for the same event vary between lists to make it fit the log scale for that list. The majority of the events are fairly arbitray evolutionary milestones; few of the events deal with culture/inventions in the last 10K years. The invention of writing shows up on the different lists at 40,000 years ago, 6300, 5000 (X3), 4907, 4000. 4907?!!? Surely that date was just picked to make it fit the scale.

    Some other extremely questionable events:

    “Origin of Proconsul and Ramapithecus, probable ancestors of apes and men” 18 MYA (yeah, but there are tons of potential ancestors at different times, why focus on these two?);

    “Asokan India; Ch’in Dynasty China; Periclean Athens; birth of Buddha” 1900 years ago (what’s so important here)

    “Mayan civilization; Sung Dynasty China; Byzantine empire; Mongol invasion; crusades” 1000 years ago (again, I don’t see the big deal here; chronology is also very sloppy, Mongol invasions are 800 years ago, Maya civilization completely collapsed by 1000 years ago, but was mostly done 1500 years ago).

    I don’t see evidence of accelerating technological innovation in my lifetime. Yeah, computers are getting a heck of a lot faster, the internet has been widely adopted, and cell phones are pretty common. Possibly nanotech/genomics will impact my life in major ways in coming years. But if I look at my grandmother’s lifetime, changes are far more profound. Radio, airplanes, electric lights, automobiles were all invented shortly before my grandmother was born, but were widely adopted in her lifetime. Television, antibiotics, nukes, space travel, computers, were invented after my grandmother was born, and widely adopted in her lifetime. Internet is the only thing that’s really changed in my lifetime (and it was invented before I was born). Where are all the major technological advance that should be coming on an almost yearly basis if the singularity is actually approaching?

  132. #133 mayhempix
    February 9, 2009

    “Ray Kurzweil. That guy is bonkers.”

    I love my Kurzweil digital keyboard. It has weighted piano keys and includes a Steinway and a Bosendorfer along with beautifully sample3d orchestras, organs and percussion. Kurzweil was the first to apply AI to sampled and synthesized instrumental harmonics and revolutionized music. Being “out there” can have its benefits.

  133. #134 Reader5000
    February 9, 2009

    @129

    No, the libertarian transhumanists want to allow each company control over the medical intellectual property used by their customers. How do we control how our genetic information is used? How do we gain the treatments without signing on to their EULA’s? How do we keep our kids from inheriting these obligations when the modifications are passed down?

    I’d be happy to seriously transform the ownership of information, and so would the scientists, but then the MBA’s will lose their meal ticket.

    And as for transforming the entire population, aren’t the transhumanists expecting that everyone will have to sign on for enhancements, just to stay employed? And that’s not even bringing up the eugenicist faction.

  134. #135 XiXiDu
    February 9, 2009

    Oh please, don’t mix transhumanism up with general Techno-utopianism. It’s a shame already that in this post futurism is being lump together with Kurzweil’s use of the concept of a technological singularity. But transhumanism is a whole different topic really.

    And for some people here trying to mix transhumanism with eugenics, use Google please and read up on it. To my experience transhumanism is a movement with the highest ethics.

  135. #136 XiXiDu
    February 9, 2009

    CJO, fresh water and the dismiss of nanotech in one sentence? Don’t be foolish.

  136. #137 CJO
    February 9, 2009

    Hey, I’m not so much ‘dismissing’ nanotech as questioning the likelihood that it’s going to come online in a robust form in time to assist with some brute reality issues of energy scarcity and environmental collapse.

    Like any technology, it’s going to need funding into the research, and there’s going to be an expected payoff. What are the chances that its inventors and their patrons are going to give freely of their brainchild to solve collective humanity’s larger energy/environmental problems rather than the preservation of elites? What are the chances that v1.0 is going to be sufficiently bug-free for massive deployment against such problems without the risk of (potentially worse than the disease) unintended consequences?

    I’m simply afraid that we’ve backed ourselves up against a cliff that high tech simply can’t save us from toppling off of. Our problems are systemic, and the time-frame in which we can deploy systemic situations grows short; as the early stages of collapse begin, systemic solutions will be even less likely to succeed as the fabric of technological society starts to unravel.

  137. #138 Reader5000
    February 9, 2009

    @XiXiDu

    Some good points. Futurism is much more than what is being discussed here. It’s supposed to be about forecasting scenarios and varied reactions to situations, not saying “This is definitely how it’s going to be”.

    And I know that transhumanism as a movement has repeatedly condemned TwenCen-style eugenics. There are many (small-d) democratic-oriented people in the scenes of transhumanism and other transformative developments. Which is good because we who will remain human-normal will need them to defend us.

    From whom? I suspect that contempt and hatred will continue, and there will be groups of people who claim that they are superior and that the inferior should perish. It’s happened before, without basis in medical fact. It can happen again with DNA scans to back it up. Consider the fascist transhumanists whom James Hughes warns us against. http://www.changesurfer.com/Acad/TranshumPolitics.htm

    Your movement should continue stamping out that kind of organizing. Also, publicize arguments for self-defense that can be used by those of us who are not transhumans or transhumanists. Be prepared to fight the Social Darwinists when it comes to violence, for example if they try to use biological weapons to wipe out those without enhancements.

    It’s good that you are discussing ethical issues like those in the link below. But I warn you to watch out on your far-right flank. They are not going to go away.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transhumanism#Specter_of_coercive_eugenicism_.28Eugenics_Wars_argument.29

    I want all of the many different subspecies of future humans to see themselves as social and moral equals. I don’t want race wars. As with all of these transformative technologies, we can prevent a lot of bad consequences by looking at the historical context, setting up institutional safeguards, and preventing disasters.

  138. #139 ctenotrish
    February 9, 2009

    Hi Tulse. I was thinking ‘new human’ and got my Latin and Spanish muddled. And apparently “Big Bang Theory” beat me to it anyway – Homo novis is where I was trying to go. Sigh. I hope I am not keeping XKCD guy up, since I was wrong on the internet!

  139. #140 Phila
    February 9, 2009

    I wonder if anyone who posted on this topic yet would be opposed to the ideas of people like Kurzweil becoming reality.

    [raises hand]

    Apart from all the other problems I have with it, I see Kurzweil’s world as one in which Dick Cheney and Bill Gates and Ray Kurzweil (or their future equivalents) will live forever.

    Fortunately, it’ll probably never happen.

  140. #141 Julian
    February 9, 2009

    Peter B: You’re understanding of Evolution is flawed. Evolution is not a series of discreet acts, its a series of transcription errors, each of which has a range of effects which are then selected upon by environmental stimuli. The wages of life kill off those where negative effects predominate and benefit those where the overall impact is neutral or beneficial. Indeed, most “beneficial” traits begin as minor cosmetic differences, and only through hundreds, perhaps thousands, of generations under specific environmental pressure do those traits specify and strengthen. Why do you think it takes such a large timescale to generate appreciable change, outside of the very extreme conditions that drive punctuates equilibrium? Because for each beneficial development growing out of a previous trait there are uncounted failures.

    You are right to say that the initial workings of evolution are small, but that’s my whole point; human directed gene therapy is not aimed at small, slow changes but large fast ones. Because of this, complimentary mutations have no time to develop naturally to increase the benefits of the first, nor is there a chance for environmental pressures to degrade the negatives which always accompany any mutation. This is why I argue that, far from going in and getting yourself new eyes in a day or week, any successful, non-lethal gene therapy will require a long and careful balancing of traits with plenty of time included for new cell-production to be carried out between each treatment. Otherwise, un-for-seen negative side-effects could converge and kill the patient, create undesired, undesirable traits, or leave the patient with traits which its body is unable to use or support.

    Also, I made no argument regarding the desirability of gene therapy and directed evolution. Both are powerful tools which will no doubt someday have a benefit just as beneficial as vaccines have in our own times. My point is that to pursue it haphazardly without respect for the intricacies of anatomy, genetics, and cellular interaction is to put lives at risk unnecessarily, and that to say it is not far away is to delude ourselves.

  141. #142 Anonymous
    February 9, 2009

    Predictions of the Future:
    - Somebody makes nanobots. Nobody cares. We made enzymes for everything anyway, we just have them for novelty, so still homo sapiens.
    - Immortality is achieved. People confuse immortality with indestructibility, resulting in riots. Still homo sapiens.
    - Somebody makes an supermegaroboexoskeletonthing. That’s nice, but still homo sapiens.
    - Somebody makes a supercloningmegamachinebiothing. Nobody cares if they can have 10000 children in 2 weeks, the world’s too overpopulated anyway. Still homo sapiens, just more overpopulated.
    - Singularity occurs. Nobody cares. Life continues as normal. AI gets bored and commits suicide. Still homo sapiens.
    - Somebody replaces brain with silicon. The next week we develop an graphene based ion channel, and a quantum computer and add them to neurons. Silicon goes out of fashion. Still homo sapiens, just with even bigger (unused) brains.
    - Somebody uploads their mind. The computer crashes because they’re creationist. While simulated worlds become popular, nobody bothers using them as anything more as a way to make shared dreams actually real. Still homo sapiens.
    - Some megastructure is built. It’s too expensive to live on. Nobody cares. Still homo sapiens.
    - Universe ends. Humanity escapes through two wormholes to other universes. One collapses and kills half of the population. The other half are creationists. Oops.

  142. #143 Big City
    February 9, 2009

    @ 125:
    Be more pretentious. Be more pretentious when you’re commenting on a blog post.

    I agree with 136. I think that the level to which humans are about to begin modifying their bodies and abilities warrants a new classification. Even if it won’t be passed down genetically(which it probably will be, at some point).

  143. #144 Brian X
    February 9, 2009

    On the matter of Moore’s Law:

    Moore’s Law, in whatever form, will come to an end when the light used to etch silicon is of a smaller wavelength than the minimum width of atoms needed to create a reliable, functioning transistor. If I had to take a guess, I’d put that somewhere on the short end of the x-ray spectrum.

    As for transhumanism:

    Utopian belief systems seldom seem to really address the nitty-gritty. Considering how much of civilization has essentially remained the same despite seven thousand years of recorded technical progress (and a bit more if you go back to some of the preliterate urban civilizations), it seems like the greatest technical advances have come about because of societal changes, with the expansion of Greek thinking being the result of the importation of the alphabet from the Phoenicians, or the reintroduction of widespread use of money freeing up capital to create the Renaissance (and then, a few hundred years later, the Enlightenment, as exploration became the order of the day and feudalism crumbled).

    To the extent that anything like a singularity happens, it will be societal, not technical, and it will be far more incremental than Kurzweil et al. want it to be. As for changes in human evolution, until such time as it becomes possible for human societies to split off and live in isolation again, I think the only trend of significance will be browner and prettier.

  144. #145 Peter B
    February 9, 2009

    Julian:

    You’re understanding of Evolution is flawed. Evolution is not a series of discreet acts, its a series of transcription errors, each of which has a range of effects which are then selected upon by environmental stimuli.

    More precisely, it?s a series of replication and repair errors, viral insertions, deletions, inversions, and chromosomal crossovers and translocations in the germline. :) I agree with your point on complementary mutations; human biodesign won?t be fast and easy. But I think you overstated it when you wrote we may need 100Ks of rewritings even for small desirable effects on the phenotype. Couldn?t there be a large set of diverging mutational sequences to achieve the same effect, some very convoluted and some surprisingly short?

    Fortunately, scientists won?t have to take their chances with human patients first before we find out how difficult all of this really is. If the money mountain that is the Methuselah Mouse Prize births a healthy gengineered mouse that rejuvenates steadily for 10 years, it will be clear that mammalian biology isn?t quite as opaque as feared.

    Why do you think it takes such a large timescale to generate appreciable change, outside of the very extreme conditions that drive punctuates equilibrium? Because for each beneficial development growing out of a previous trait there are uncounted failures.

    True. It also takes much time because of what I said: evolution has no foresight. It can?t walk a trail of individually disadaptive mutations to reach an adaptive trait. Some valleys in the adaptive landscape seem to be rimmed by ridges (near) insurmountable through trial-and-error. There, computationally guided evolution has a shortcut-blazing advantage that cannot be discounted based on the slowness of natural evolution.

  145. #146 Stephen Couchman
    February 9, 2009

    Yeesh. The straw men are thick on the ground. Thanks, kids, for assuming every transhuman futurist is short-sighted, tunnel-visioned, Randian, and incapable of recognizing the complexity of cascading interdependent emergent systems. My god, raptors’ eyes are attached to a whole evolved organism? Why wasn’t I told about this?

    Max @124: Yes, many transhumanists are eugenicists — not bullshit racist Nazi eugenicists, but they do believe it should be possible to to select for favorable traits and against unfavorable ones. And yes, that’s a thorny issue and a slippery slope (example: if we eliminate sickle-cell anemia, we’d damned well better have malaria dealt with). Whether or not you think our species can be trusted to make these sorts of judgment calls probably speaks more to your own cynicism than the viability of the enterprise (and the fact that you invoked Godwin’s Law-once-removed is telling in that regard).

    Andrew @133: Are you serious? “Where is the major technological change?” If you experience one of a (growing) range of organ failures tomorrow, the medical establishment can grow you a new one by inducing pluripotency in your own cells. Cloud processing and ubiquitous social computing? Narrow-AI intelligent agency? MRI mind-reading? Fusion? Snuggies? Wake up, man, you’ve been LIVING in the future.

  146. #147 Pareidolius
    February 9, 2009

    Crimony, why does every pseudoscientific nutjob have to come up with some new homo suffix? It gives the the already scientifically illiterate populace the impression that a new species might just appear in the middle of a dinner party with an audible pop.

  147. #148 Alan Kellogg
    February 10, 2009

    Brian Coughlan, #68

    I covered that. Destroying the original does not make the copy the original. A copy remains a copy regardless of what you do with the original.

  148. #149 Alan Kellogg
    February 10, 2009

    Morgan, #69

    So that photocopy you just ran off is the same thing as the original, only it’s new.

  149. #150 Riman Butterbur
    February 10, 2009

    chris | February 9, 2009 17:04

    And don’t get me started on lay and lie.

    There are lots of lays that lie, but I like them for the tune, not for the lyrics.

  150. #151 Ian Andreas Miller
    February 11, 2009

    Homo evolutus would be latin, I think. However, ”evolutis” is still the closest he comes to making actual sense.

    “Human being for the rolled-out ones” (what Homo evolutis actually means) doesn’t make much sense.

  151. #152 nothing's sacred
    February 13, 2009

    We are already able to emulate large sections of mammalian brains within a computer.

    That’s absurd; no such thing has been done. As for Moore’s Law — one must be mindbogglingly ignorant and dense to mistake an increase in “computing power” — faster and smaller components — for an increase in cognitive power. You can have a computer with a petabyte of femtosecond memory, and it’s still just a brick unless it’s running the right program, and Moore’s Law doesn’t do a damn thing to help us figure out what that is.

  152. #153 nothing's sacred
    February 13, 2009

    I covered that. Destroying the original does not make the copy the original. A copy remains a copy regardless of what you do with the original.

    So that photocopy you just ran off is the same thing as the original, only it’s new.

    How can someone still be so confused about these thing in the digital age? The information content is the same — identical. If I copy a file from one computer to another, it’s not only impossible to determine which is “the original”, but the notion is meaningless for pure abstract information.

    But the problem with uploading human minds is that they aren’t purely abstract; one’s memory is full of information about one’s specific body, and one’s cognitive processes are entrained to the sensory streams produced by one’s sensory organs. A mind uploaded into a machine that doesn’t have the right physical characteristics will result in a broken mechanism.

  153. #154 nothing's sacred
    February 13, 2009

    @93 understands biology
    @127 doesn’t understand biology

    According to #93, even a simple mod could require hundreds of thousands of gene alterations. I doubt it. Evolution occurs through a series of single mutations which have to be either beneficial or at least not noticeably deleterious to get fixed in a population. If two different mutated alleles existed in two individuals of the same species, and if these alleles were beneficial together in one descendant but debilitating in separation, both alleles would go extinct unless the population were extremely small. There has been a path to our current evolutionary state under these severe constraints. Why shouldn?t there be paths to further desirable changes using few alterations at once, or even just one?

    Because all those changes along that path aren’t independent. The longer ago one of those single mutations occurred, the more likely it is to be enmeshed in numerous ways with other (later) changes. And the kinds of things we want to change involve existing traits that are the manifestations of numerous interacting multifunctional genes. Your logic is much like “A spider web is built one strand at a time. Why can’t we change its shape (or its height off the ground, or its stickiness, or …) by adding one more strand?”

  154. #155 nothing's sacred
    February 13, 2009

    Even when we eventually reach the level of understanding in this field necessary to alter our bodies through changing cellular encoding, and baring sudden extinction I see no reason why we would not

    Severe technological regression would do it — the sort that might come from global warming plus bird flu and the other pandemics that likely would result. Just the loss of the communications satellite system and the means to maintain it would be a major blow.

  155. #156 Anonymous
    February 18, 2009

    So all I see here is worthless bashing of futurism without any real refutations. Nope, the future will be just the same. I mean it’s not like we’ve had revolutionary and quick changes in human civilization due to technology before. I mean we never increased our population capacity through agriculture, or had an industrial revolution. None of that ever happened, and history will go along at a slow pace forever and nothing will really change at all.
    Wow you are all fucking luddite wannabe idiots.

  156. #157 Putz
    March 4, 2009

    Homo evolutis will only come when we modify our genes down to every base pair so that they are passed to offspring (assuming meiosis is still the way we produce offspring in the future and we don’t just program zygotes from scratch). And there probably won’t just be a “homo evolutis” there will be a huge variety depending on how indidividuals choose to alter their physical and mental properties.

  157. #158 cathy.a.sander
    January 22, 2010

    Accepting for the moment that Kurzweil’s suggestion of timing is right in the ballpark, I still think that we will face unintended problems. We have advances in technology, only because we understand to some great detail about the underlying mechanisms of electronic computing systems. For us to have some of these predictions fulfilled, we would need to conduct further research into the nature of biological systems.

    Even so, if we discover that there are limitations to what we [or even evolutionary AI for all I care] can do, then there will be a point when we realise that trade-offs need to be made. Global optimality–as in having a system that is good at everything–does not happen. Computational nightnares can still happen [and do occur!].

    I agree with Alan Kellogg on this issue:
    A simulation of X is not the same thing as X.

    I’m curious about the missing details of chemical interactions that make life processes possible in these discussions. Kurzweil expects these details, apparently, to be filled in as if by magic. We underestimate the power of non-conscious systems at our peril.

    BTW: what is the difference between nanotechnology [a buzzword indeed!] and chemistry? Is it just an attitude towards making new things?

  158. #159 professordendy
    January 22, 2010

    Well, It’s nice to know that Creationists aren’t the only ones you think are wacked!

  159. #160 aratina cage of the OM
    January 22, 2010

    Well, It’s nice to know that Creationists aren’t the only ones you think are wacked! -Dendy

    Is this a blundering admission that you are a creationist, Professor Dendy?

  160. #161 Janine, Mistress Of Foul Mouth Abuse, OM
    January 22, 2010

    Aratina Cage, I saw that dum-dum left a comment on a year old thread but left it alone. This is the type of thing that should have been ignored. There are so many things that he can be mocked for.

  161. #162 Nerd of Redhead, OM
    January 22, 2010

    Ms Sander, the fact that you agree with AK doesn’t help your argument. His idea of what constitutes scientific evidence is lacking. Nanotechnology sits between molecules and eyeball visible bulk matter.

    The Dandy is dumby. Which he keeps admitting through is inane posts.

  162. #163 aratina cage of the OM
    January 22, 2010

    You are right, Janine, I shouldn’t have touched this one. I thought it was strange that Dendy would have it in his mind that we think only creationists are idiots and couldn’t resist asking the numskull about it.

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