Technology and Human Enhancement

February 3, 2006

Originally published in The Futurist March-April 2006. Reprinted on February 3, 2006.

This article is a response to Ray Kurzweil’s feature in The Futurist, Reinventing Humanity. You can also read other responses to Kurzweil’s article by Terry Grossman, J. Storrs Hall, Damien Broderick, and Richard Eckersley. Ray Kurzweil’s response to Eckersley’s comments can be found here.

Click here to read a PDF of the full feature.

I have a few differences of opinion with Kurzweil about the coming Singularity.

I think he is being overly optimistic about biotechnology’s ability to create substantially better biological human beings. While we’ll certainly learn to push human capacities to their natural limits in coming decades, I see nothing on the horizon that would allow us to exceed those limits. Biology seems far too frail, slow, complex, and well defended (both at the molecular level and with regard to social custom) for that to be plausible within any reasonable time frame. Furthermore, by the time we are able to substantially improve our biology, we probably won’t want to, as there will be far more interesting and powerful technological environments available to us instead. This points to the importance of understanding the relative accelerations of various technologies (in this case, biological vs. technological).

Kurzweil makes a major contribution to the literature on acceleration studies by clearly explaining technological acceleration curves. These acceleration curves show that the longer we use a technology, the more we get out of it: We use less energy, space, and time, and we get more capacity for less cost. Technological acceleration curves are a little-understood area, but thanks to pioneers like Kurzweil, interest and research in the field are advancing.

The notion that the “future can’t be predicted" is demonstrably false with regard to a wide number of accelerating physical-computational trends, even though we do not yet know specifically how those technologies will be implemented. We can no longer ignore the profound technological changes occurring all around us.

It’s also time we acknowledged the slowness of human biology compared to our technological progeny. Our machines are increasingly exceeding us in the performance of more and more tasks, from guiding objects like missiles or satellites to assembling other machines. They are merging with us ever more intimately, andare learning how to reconfigure our biology in new and significantly faster technological domains.

Something very interesting is happening, and human beings are selective catalysts, not absolute controllers, of this process. Let us face this openly, and investigate it actively, so that we may guide these developments as wisely as possible.

© 2006 John Smart. Reprinted with permission.