Posted: Tue, January 15, 2013 | By: José Cordeiro
Many futurists agree about “technological convergence” but have diverging views about a possible “technological singularity,” some see it as a very likely scenario, while others do not believe that there will be any sudden and dramatic changes due to progress in artificial intelligence, for example. Most scientists and engineers also agree that there is an increasing, even exponential, rate of technological change. In fact, the rapid emergence of new technologies has generated scientific developments never dreamed of before.
The expression “emerging technologies” is used to cover such new and potentially powerful technologies as genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology. Although the exact denotation of the expression is vague, various writers have identified clusters of such technologies that they consider critical to humanity’s future. These proposed technology clusters are typically abbreviated by such combinations of letters as NBIC, which stands for Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information technology and Cognitive science. Various other acronyms have been offered for essentially the same concept, such as GNR (Genetics, Nanotechnology and Robotics) used by futurist Ray Kurzweil, while others prefer NRG because it sounds similar to “energy.” Journalist Joel Garreau in Radical Evolution uses GRIN, for Genetic, Robotic, Information, and Nano processes, while author Douglas Mulhall in Our Molecular Future uses GRAIN, for Genetics, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Nanotechnology. Another acronym is BANG for Bits, Atoms, Neurons, and Genes.
The first NBIC Conference for Improving Human Performance was organized by the NSF (National Science Foundation) and the DOC (Department of Commerce) in 2003. Since then, there have been many similar gatherings, in the USA and in other countries. For example, the European Union has been working on its own strategy towards converging technologies, and so have been other countries in Asia, starting with Japan.
The idea of technological convergence is based on the merger of different scientific disciplines thanks to the acceleration of change on all NBIC fields. Nanotechnology deals with atoms and molecules, biotechnology with genes and cells, infotechnology with bits and bytes, and cognitive science with neurons and brains. These four fields are rapidly converging thanks to the larger and faster information processing of ever more powerful computers.
Experts from the four NBIC fields agree about the incredible potential of technological evolution finally overtaking and directing biological evolution. From nanotechnology to biotechnology, from information technology to cognitive science, different authorities have expressed their opinions. For example, Microsoft’s Bill Gates has stated that:
I expect to see breathtaking advances in medicine over the next two decades, and biotechnology researchers and companies will be at the center of that progress. I’m a big believer in information technology… but it is hard to argue that the emerging medical revolution, spearheaded by the biotechnology industry, is any less important to the future of humankind. It, too, will empower people and raise the standard of living.
Larry Ellison of Oracle, Gates’ rival in the software industry, agrees: “If I were 21 years old, I probably wouldn’t go into computing. The computing industry is about to become boring”. He explains that: “I would go into genetic engineering.” Biologist Craig Venter has said that he spent 10 years reading the human genome, and now he is planning to write new genomes. He wants to create completely new forms of life, from scratch. Scientist and writer Gregory Stock also believes that cloning, even though a fundamental step in biotechnology, is just too simple and unexciting: “why copy old life forms when we can now create new ones?”
Biological evolution allowed the appearance of human beings, and many other species, through millions of years of natural selection based on trials and errors. Now we can control biological evolution, direct it and go beyond it. In fact, why stop evolution with carbon-based life forms? Why not move into silicon-based life, among many other possibilities? Robotics and artificial intelligence will allow us to do just that.
Scientist Marvin Minsky, one of the fathers of artificial intelligence at MIT, wrote a very famous 1994 article “Will robots inherit the Earth?” in Scientific American, where he concludes: “Yes, but they will be our children. We owe our minds to the deaths and lives of all the creatures that were ever engaged in the struggle called Evolution. Our job is to see that all this work shall not end up in meaningless waste.” Robotics expert Hans Moravec has written two important books about robots and our (their) future: Mind Children in 1988 and Robot in 1998. Moravec argues that robots will be our rightful descendants and he explains several ways to “upload” a mind into a robot. In England, cybernetics professor Kevin Warwick has been implanting his own body with several microchip devices and published in 2003 a book explaining his experiments: I, Cyborg. Warwick is a cybernetics pioneer who claims that: “I was born human. But this was an accident of fate – a condition merely of time and place. I believe it’s something we have the power to change… The future is out there; I am eager to see what it holds. I want to do something with my life: I want to be a cyborg.”
As these authors and thinkers suggest, we need to start preparing ourselves for the coming NBIC realities of technological convergence, including robotics and artificial intelligence. Thanks to technological evolution, humans will transcend our biological limitations to become transhumans and eventually posthumans. To ease this transition into a posthuman condition, we must ready ourselves for the fascinating possibility that the Earth, and other planets, will be inherited by not just one but several forms of highly intelligent and sentient life forms. Thus, the philosophy of transhumanism has been proposed for a world, and a universe, where future life forms will continue evolving. But that is the topic of a future article.