Saturday, January 23, 2010

Will We Be Immortal In The Future?

We're nearing the end of our intermittent series on what the future will be like, with a two part post on the "near-distant" future, i.e., the period ending around 2050.

Obviously, looking that far ahead is perilous. To assist, we turned to Raymond Kurzweil, a "futurist" who has written a number of books about what the future may hold. His 2005 book, "The Singularity is Near," is a comprehensive look at the technological trends likely to dominate discovery over the next few decades.

Kurzweil is an optimist. We'll take the optimistic view as well. Over the long term of human history, the optimists have prevailed, albeit with some dark periods. Kurzweil might also be a utopian; many utopians have preceded him, and their visions have generally failed, so he, too, may have gone too far.

Let's start with the easier stuff. Kurzweil identifies three technologically driven trends that will dominate the first half of this century: genetics, nanotechnology, and robots, or GNR. All three are, in turn, driven by one primary factor--the exponential increase in computing power that has been going on now for several decades.

He starts by taking us on a tour of the theoretical limits of computing power, and the current state of computing technology and research. The inescapable conclusion is that we have plenty of room to push the envelope of computing power over the next few decades. He concludes that by roughly 2030 we will have computers that are capable--for the current price $1000--of equaling or exceeding the intelligence of the human brain.

It's hard to argue with Kurzweil on this one. Maybe it won't be 2030, but certainly by 2050, and maybe as early as 2025, we'll get there. At each step along the way, we're aided by the current increases in computing power, which help us figure out the next step.

Meanwhile, the expansion of computing power will drive the Big 3--GNR--to fabulous new discoveries. In genetics, we will have a complete understanding of the human genome and that of every living thing on the planet. We will master proteomics--the science of proteins, which are the building blocks of life. We will make tremendous advances in disease treatment through genetic and stem cell advances.

Those advances are significant, because, in Kurzweil's view, they will allow us older fogeys to live long enough, and healthy enough, to take advantage of additional advances in other fields, that could essentially result in immortality.

In nanotechnology, we will get to a point where we can assemble just about anything at the molecular level. Nanotechnology is a much younger field, and still a mystery to most of us. At bottom, however, it has the potential to develp technologies at the molecular level that would make most things practically "free," while providing means to maintain our bodies, eliminate pollution, etc. Nanotechnology also presents certain doomsday scenarios, which we'll discuss in the next post.

In robotics, we will achieve artificial intelligence that rivals human intelligence. Kurzweil expects this to happen by 2030. Achieving this will be helped by the ability to "reverse-engineer" the human brain, a process on which we are making great strides.

Of course, we'll all be happy to have affordable, intelligent robots that can do all kinds of things for us. Whether we'll be happy to have robots smarter than us is a different matter--again, a subject for our next post.

Ultimately, Kurzweil projects that we will--in our lifetimes--have the ability to "upload" the contents of our brains into a machine entity, and that we will have the ability to live for hundreds of years, if not forever, but in a form that fuses human with machine until we become more machine than human.

This is what Kurzweil calls "the singularity"--the point at which humans possess a super-intelligence and live forever. And this will occur in our (now extended) lifetimes (certainly in those of our children).

That's pretty heavy duty stuff. It's one thing to think about lounging around (in say 2030) at the beach, in a body that is like that of a 40 year old (or younger!), enjoying life's pleasures (much of it in virtual reality) while robots and nanobots take care of everything for us. We can kind of get a grasp on that, and it doesn't sound too bad.

But being an immortal machine vastly more intelligent than today's brightest humans? Guess we'd have to be a lot more intelligent to grasp that one. Doesn't sound like heaven on earth, but maybe it will be.

It's hard to argue with Kurzweil's basic premise however: we have, today, a vast, decentralized, scientific and technological enterprise that is moving forward with astounding speed--when compared to prior centuries or even prior decades. It is unlikely that anything is going to stop those advances, or even slow them down very much. True, there are Luddite factions (like those that opposed embryonic stem cell research in the U.S.) in various places, but all they can do is slow progress in a small part of the world, not everywhere. The competition is just too great.

So, will that technology take us to some kind of utopia? We'll discuss that in a further post (this one already being rather long).


Carolyn said...

At the ripe old age of 75, I've been seeing similar pictures (to that illustrating this blog)for years and years, and I keep hoping it'll get here before I leave! Look back in 50's Popular Science, etc.
Meanwhile, my husband and I often talk about the advances we've seen and wonder what will come along in the time we have're lucky to have many more years to experience the changes.
ALSO, congrats on a hundred thousand hits on the blog; we want to hear next that 100,000 copies of Landstrike have been sold!!!

John said...

Kurzweil himself favors adult stem cell research over embryonic stem cell research in his 2004 book "The Singularity is Near". Kurzweil is anything but a Luddite, equating those who have misgivings about embryonic stem cell research is highly inaccurate.

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