It covers several arenas. Biello is a prominent science journalist. He covers high technology and earth, energy, environmental and physical sciences with enthusiasm and vigorous style. But while a fan of science and gadgetry he has not, to my recollection and boosted by a scan of his recent SciAm stories , done much advocacy journalism. His sentiments may be there to infer but he does not usually say outright what policy he want to see. The story is grand in scope, a little bit hyperbolic in some of its passages but sensible in its coverage of recent history of this idea.
Which is, as many tracker readers know, that deliberate fertilization of the mineral-poor waters of the open sea triggers exceedingly fast response by single-cell plankton. Their huge blooms devour CO2 from the water, eventually starve, die, and sink much of their carbon-rich tissue to the abyssal sea bed. The story is not only a sales job for renewed experimentation with the method, but a paeon to the stubborn souls who have been pursuing it for both altruistic and financial reasons.
Did I mention that Biello is in the middle of a book project about the Anthropocene? This is of course the not-yet-official geological epoch that has already phased out the Holocene. Nobelist Paul Crutzen has promoted the concept most vigorously from within the science community. This story reads like an excerpt.
It has good bones. The topic merits a top-notch book that sells. The more, the better. A partial list of books already out:. Corruption in science?
Buck and Petal Chill the Anthropocene
Academic discrimination? Research censorship? Government cover-ups? Email us at tips undark. Nothing metaphysical about it. It is all technical problems. Death personified as the Grim Reaper in medieval art. And every technical problem has a technical solution. A couple of geeks in a lab can do it. If traditionally death was the speciality of priests and theologians, now the engineers are taking over. We can kill the cancerous cells with chemotherapy or nano-robots. We can exterminate the germs in the lungs with antibiotics. But this is precisely why we invest so much time and money in researching cancer, germs, genetics and nanotechnology.
Even ordinary people, who are not engaged in scientific research, have become used to thinking about death as a technical problem. Even when people die in a hurricane, a car accident or a war, we tend to view it as a technical failure that could and should have been prevented.
If the government had only adopted a better policy; if the municipality had done its job properly; and if the military commander had taken a wiser decision, death would have been avoided. Death has become an almost automatic reason for lawsuits and investigations. Somebody somewhere must have screwed up. People can go on dying from that. It says that every human has a right to life, period.
An increasing minority of scientists and thinkers consequently speak more openly these days, and state that the flagship enterprise of modern science is to defeat death and grant humans eternal youth. We are trying to win the game. PayPal co- founder Peter Thiel has recently confessed that he aims to live for ever.
I think our society is dominated by people who are into denial or acceptance, and I prefer to fight it. Yet Thiel is somebody to be taken very seriously. The breakneck development of fields such as genetic engineering, regenerative medicine and nanotechnology fosters ever more optimistic prophecies. Some experts believe that humans will overcome death by , others say Kurzweil and de Grey are even more sanguine. They maintain that anyone possessing a healthy body and a healthy bank account in will have a serious shot at immortality by cheating death a decade at a time.
According to Kurzweil and de Grey, every ten years or so we will march into the clinic and receive a makeover treatment that will not only cure illnesses, but will also regenerate decaying tissues, and upgrade hands, eyes and brains. Before the next treatment is due, doctors will have invented a plethora of new medicines, upgrades and gadgets. If Kurzweil and de Grey are right, there may already be some immortals walking next to you on the street — at least if you happen to be walking down Wall Street or Fifth Avenue.
In truth they will actually be a-mortal, rather than immortal. Unlike God, future superhumans could still die in some war or accident, and nothing could bring them back from the netherworld. However, unlike us mortals, their life would have no expiry date. So long as no bomb shreds them to pieces or no truck runs them over, they could go on living indefinitely.
Which will probably make them the most anxious people in history. We mortals daily take chances with our lives, because we know they are going to end anyhow. So we go on treks in the Himalayas, swim in the sea, and do many other dangerous things like crossing the street or eating out. But if you believe you can live for ever, you would be crazy to gamble on infinity like that.
In the twentieth century we have almost doubled life expectancy from forty to seventy, so in the twenty-first century we should at least be able to double it again to Though falling far short of immortality, this would still revolutionise human society. For starters, family structure, marriages and child—parent relationships would be transformed. Now try to imagine a person with a lifespan of years. Getting married at forty, she still has years to go.
Will it be realistic to expect her marriage to last years? Even Catholic fundamentalists might baulk at that. So the current trend of serial marriages is likely to intensify. Bearing two children in her forties, she will, by the time she is , have only a distant memory of the years she spent raising them — a rather minor episode in her long life. Or consider professional careers. Today we assume that you learn a profession in your teens and twenties, and then spend the rest of your life in that line of work.
You obviously learn new things even in your forties and fifties, but life is generally divided into a learning period followed by a working period. People will have much longer careers, and will have to reinvent themselves again and again even at the age of ninety. At the same time, people will not retire at sixty-five and will not make way for the new generation with its novel ideas and aspirations.
The physicist Max Planck famously said that science advances one funeral at a time. He meant that only when one generation passes away do new theories have a chance to root out old ones. This is true not only of science. Think for a moment about your own workplace. No matter whether you are a scholar, journalist, cook or football player, how would you feel if your boss were , his ideas were formulated when Victoria was still queen, and he was likely to stay your boss for a couple of decades more? In the political sphere the results might be even more sinister.
Would you mind having Putin stick around for another ninety years? Her son Charles would not get his turn until My own view is that the hopes of eternal youth in the twenty-first century are premature, and whoever takes them too seriously is in for a bitter disappointment. It is not easy to live knowing that you are going to die, but it is even harder to believe in immortality and be proven wrong. Although average life expectancy has doubled over the last hundred years, it is unwarranted to extrapolate and conclude that we can double it again to in the coming century.
In global life expectancy was no higher than forty because many people died young from malnutrition, infectious diseases and violence. Yet those who escaped famine, plague and war could live well into their seventies and eighties, which is the natural life span of Homo sapiens. Galileo Galilei died at seventy-seven, Isaac Newton at eighty-four, and Michelangelo lived to the ripe age of eighty-eight, without any help from antibiotics, vaccinations or organ transplants.
Indeed, even chimpanzees in the jungle sometimes live into their sixties. Its great achievement has been to save us from premature death, and allow us to enjoy the full measure of our years. Even if we now overcome cancer, diabetes and the other major killers, it would mean only that almost everyone will get to live to ninety — but it will not be enough to reach , let alone For that, medicine will need to re-engineer the most fundamental structures and processes of the human body, and discover how to regenerate organs and tissues. It is by no means clear that we can do that by Nevertheless, every failed attempt to overcome death will get us a step closer to the target, and that will inspire greater hopes and encourage people to make even greater efforts.
The next generation of Googlers could therefore start their attack on death from new and better positions. The scientists who cry immortality are like the boy who cried wolf: sooner or later, the wolf actually comes. When you take into account our belief in the sanctity of human life, add the dynamics of the scientific establishment, and top it all with the needs of the capitalist economy, a relentless war against death seems to be inevitable.
Our ideological commitment to human life will never allow us simply to accept human death. As long as people die of something, we will strive to overcome it. The scientific establishment and the capitalist economy will be more than happy to underwrite this struggle. Can anyone imagine a more exciting scientific challenge than outsmarting death — or a more promising market than the market of eternal youth? If you are over forty, close your eyes for a minute and try to remember the body you had at twenty-five.
Not only how it looked, but above all how it felt. If you could have that body back, how much would you be willing to pay for it? No doubt some people would be happy to forgo the opportunity, but enough customers would pay whatever it takes, constituting a well-nigh infinite market. If all that is not enough, the fear of death ingrained in most humans will give the war against death an irresistible momentum. As long as people assumed that death is inevitable, they trained themselves from an early age to suppress the desire to live for ever, or harnessed it in favour of substitute goals.
A large part of our artistic creativity, our political commitment and our religious piety is fuelled by the fear of death. Woody Allen, who has made a fabulous career out of the fear of death, was once asked if he hoped to live on for ever through the silver screen. I want to achieve it by not dying. Once people think with or without good reason that they have a serious chance of escaping death, the desire for life will refuse to go on pulling the rickety wagon of art, ideology and religion, and will sweep forward like an avalanche.
If you think that religious fanatics with burning eyes and flowing beards are ruthless, just wait and see what elderly retail moguls and ageing Hollywood starlets will do when they think the elixir of life is within reach. If and when science makes significant progress in the war against death, the real battle will shift from the laboratories to the parliaments, courthouses and streets.
Once the scientific efforts are crowned with success, they will trigger bitter political conflicts. All the wars and conflicts of history might turn out to be but a pale prelude for the real struggle ahead of us: the struggle for eternal youth. The Right to Happiness The second big project on the human agenda will probably be to find the key to happiness. Throughout history numerous thinkers, prophets and ordinary people defined happiness rather than life itself as the supreme good.
In ancient Greece the philosopher Epicurus explained that worshipping gods is a waste of time, that there is no existence after death, and that happiness is the sole purpose of life. Most people in ancient times rejected Epicureanism, but today it has become the default view. Scepticism about the afterlife drives humankind to seek not only immortality, but also earthly happiness. For who would like to live for ever in eternal misery? For Epicurus the pursuit of happiness was a personal quest. Modern thinkers, in contrast, tend to see it as a collective project.
Without government planning, economic resources and scientific research, individuals will not get far in their quest for happiness. If your country is torn apart by war, if the economy is in crisis and if health care is non- existent, you are likely to be miserable. Politicians should make peace, business people should foster prosperity and scholars should study nature, not for the greater glory of king, country or God — but so that you and I could enjoy a happier life.
Countries measured their success by the size of their territory, the increase in their population and the growth of their GDP — not by the happiness of their citizens. Industrialised nations such as Germany, France and Japan established gigantic systems of education, health and welfare, yet these systems were aimed to strengthen the nation rather than ensure individual well-being.
Schools were founded to produce skilful and obedient citizens who would serve the nation loyally. They needed a reasonable command of electrics, mechanics and medicine, in order to operate wireless sets, drive tanks and take care of wounded comrades. When they left the army they were expected to serve the nation as clerks, teachers and engineers, building a modern economy and paying lots of taxes. The same went for the health system. At the end of the nineteenth century countries such as France, Germany and Japan began providing free health care for the masses. They financed vaccinations for infants, balanced diets for children and physical education for teenagers.
They drained festering swamps, exterminated mosquitoes and built centralised sewage systems. The country needed sturdy soldiers and workers, healthy women who would give birth to more soldiers and workers, and bureaucrats who came to the office punctually at 8 a. Even the welfare system was originally planned in the interest of the nation rather than of needy individuals. You fought for your country when you were eighteen, and paid your taxes when you were forty, because you counted on the state to take care of you when you were seventy. Rather, he sought only to limit the power of the state.
The idea was to reserve for individuals a private sphere of choice, free from state supervision. People increasingly believe that the immense systems established more than a century ago to strengthen the nation should actually serve the happiness and well-being of individual citizens. We are not here to serve the state — it is here to serve us.
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The right to the pursuit of happiness, originally envisaged as a restraint on state power, has imperceptibly morphed into the right to happiness — as if human beings have a natural right to be happy, and anything which makes us dissatisfied is a violation of our basic human rights, so the state should do something about it. In the twentieth century per capita GDP was perhaps the supreme yardstick for evaluating national success.
But nowadays thinkers, politicians and even economists are calling to supplement or even replace GDP with GDH — gross domestic happiness. After all, what do people want? They want to be happy. But it is only the means, not the end. In one survey after another Costa Ricans report far higher levels of life satisfaction than Singaporeans. Would you rather be a highly productive but dissatisfied Singaporean, or a less productive but satisfied Costa Rican?
This kind of logic might drive humankind to make happiness its second main goal for the twenty-first century. At first glance this might seem a relatively easy project.
If famine, plague and war are disappearing, if humankind experiences unprecedented peace and prosperity, and if life expectancy increases dramatically, surely all that will make humans happy, right? When Epicurus defined happiness as the supreme good, he warned his disciples that it is hard work to be happy. Material achievements alone will not satisfy us for long. Indeed, the blind pursuit of money, fame and pleasure will only make us miserable. In the long run, a deep friendship will make us more content than a frenzied orgy. Epicurus was apparently on to something.
Despite our unprecedented achievements in the last few decades, it is far from obvious that contemporary people are significantly more satisfied than their ancestors in bygone years. Indeed, it is an ominous sign that despite higher prosperity, comfort and security, the rate of suicide in the developed world is also much higher than in traditional societies.
In Peru, Guatemala, the Philippines and Albania — developing countries suffering from poverty and political instability — about one person in , commits suicide each year. In rich and peaceful countries such as Switzerland, France, Japan and New Zealand, twenty- five people per , take their own lives annually.
In most South Koreans were poor, uneducated and tradition-bound, living under an authoritarian dictatorship. Today South Korea is a leading economic power, its citizens are among the best educated in the world, and it enjoys a stable and comparatively liberal democratic regime. Thus the drastic decrease in child mortality has surely brought an increase in human happiness, and partially compensated people for the stress of modern life. Still, even if we are somewhat happier than our ancestors, the increase in our well-being is far less than we might have expected.
In the Stone Age, the average human had at his or her disposal about 4, calories of energy per day. This included not only food, but also the energy invested in preparing tools, clothing, art and campfires. Today Americans use on average , calories of energy per person per day, to feed not only their stomachs but also their cars, computers, refrigerators and televisions. Is the average American sixty times happier? We may well be sceptical about such rosy views. It took just a piece of bread to make a starving medieval peasant joyful.
How do you bring joy to a bored, overpaid and overweight engineer? The second half of the twentieth century was a golden age for the USA. Victory in the Second World War, followed by an even more decisive victory in the Cold War, turned it into the leading global superpower. Real per capita income doubled. The newly invented contraceptive pill made sex freer than ever. Women, gays, African Americans and other minorities finally got a bigger slice of the American pie. A flood of cheap cars, refrigerators, air conditioners, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, laundry machines, telephones, televisions and computers changed daily life almost beyond recognition.
Yet studies have shown that American subjective well-being levels in the s remained roughly the same as they were in the s. This avalanche of wealth, coupled with myriad positive and negative changes in Japanese lifestyles and social relations, had surprisingly little impact on Japanese subjective well-being levels. Achieving real happiness is not going to be much easier than overcoming old age and death.
The glass ceiling of happiness is held in place by two stout pillars, one psychological, the other biological. On the psychological level, happiness depends on expectations rather than objective conditions. Rather, we become satisfied when reality matches our expectations. The bad news is that as conditions improve, expectations balloon. Dramatic improvements in conditions, as humankind has experienced in recent decades, translate into greater expectations rather than greater contentment. On the biological level, both our expectations and our happiness are determined by our biochemistry, rather than by our economic, social or political situation.
According to Epicurus, we are happy when we feel pleasant sensations and are free from unpleasant ones. Jeremy Bentham similarly maintained that nature gave dominion over man to two masters — pleasure and pain — and they alone determine everything we do, say and think. Anyone who tries to deduce good and evil from something else such as the word of God, or the national interest is fooling you, and perhaps fooling himself too.
In the days of Bentham and Mill it was radical subversion. But in the early twenty-first century this is scientific orthodoxy. According to the life sciences, happiness and suffering are nothing but different balances of bodily sensations. We never react to events in the outside world, but only to sensations in our own bodies. Nobody suffers because she lost her job, because she got divorced or because the government went to war. A thousand things may make us angry, but anger is never an abstraction. It is always felt as a sensation of heat and tension in the body, which is what makes anger so infuriating.
Conversely, science says that nobody is ever made happy by getting a promotion, winning the lottery or even finding true love. People are made happy by one thing and one thing only — pleasant sensations in their bodies. Only seven minutes remain before the dreaded penalty shoot-out. You stop the ball with your chest, it drops down towards your leg, you give it a kick in mid-air, and you see it fly past the Argentinian goalkeeper and bury itself deep inside the net.
The stadium erupts like a volcano. Tens of thousands of people roar like mad, your teammates are racing to hug and kiss you, millions of people back home in Berlin and Munich collapse in tears before the television screen. You are ecstatic, but not because of the ball in the Argentinian net or the celebrations going on in crammed Bavarian Biergartens. You are actually reacting to the storm of sensations within you. Chills run up and down your spine, waves of electricity wash over your body, and it feels as if you are dissolving into millions of exploding energy balls.
If you receive an unexpected promotion at work, and start jumping for joy, you are reacting to the same kind of sensations. The deeper parts of your mind know nothing about football or about jobs. They know only sensations. The opposite is also true. If you have just been fired or lost a decisive football match , but you are experiencing very pleasant sensations perhaps because you popped some pill , you might still feel on top of the world. The bad news is that pleasant sensations quickly subside and sooner or later turn into unpleasant ones.
In fact, it might all be downhill from there. Similarly, if last year I received an unexpected promotion at work, I might still be occupying that new position, but the very pleasant sensations I experienced on hearing the news disappeared within hours. If I want to feel those wonderful sensations again, I must get another promotion. And another. This is all the fault of evolution. For countless generations our biochemical system adapted to increasing our chances of survival and reproduction, not our happiness.
The biochemical system rewards actions conducive to survival and reproduction with pleasant sensations. But these are only an ephemeral sales gimmick. We struggle to get food and mates in order to avoid unpleasant sensations of hunger and to enjoy pleasing tastes and blissful orgasms. What might have happened if a rare mutation had created a squirrel who, after eating a single nut, enjoys an everlasting sensation of bliss? Who knows, perhaps it really happened to some lucky squirrel millions of years ago. But if so, that squirrel enjoyed an extremely happy and extremely short life, and that was the end of the rare mutation.
For the blissful squirrel would not have bothered to look for more nuts, let alone mates. The rival squirrels, who felt hungry again five minutes after eating a nut, had much better chances of surviving and passing their genes to the next generation. For exactly the same reason, the nuts we humans seek to gather — lucrative jobs, big houses, good-looking partners — seldom satisfy us for long. Climbing Mount Everest is more satisfying than standing at the top; flirting and foreplay are more exciting than having an orgasm; and conducting groundbreaking lab experiments is more interesting than receiving praise and prizes.
Yet this hardly changes the picture. It just indicates that evolution controls us with a broad range of pleasures.
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When an animal is looking for something that increases its chances of survival and reproduction e. In a famous experiment scientists connected electrodes to the brains of several rats, enabling the animals to create sensations of excitement simply by pressing a pedal. When the rats were given a choice between tasty food and pressing the pedal, they preferred the pedal much like kids preferring to play video games rather than come down to dinner.
The rats pressed the pedal again and again, until they collapsed from hunger and exhaustion. Yet what makes the race so attractive is the exhilarating sensations that go along with it. Nobody would have wanted to climb mountains, play video games or go on blind dates if such activities were accompanied solely by unpleasant sensations of stress, despair or boredom. Like the rats pressing the pedal again and again, the Don Juans, business tycoons and gamers need a new kick every day. Perhaps the key to happiness is neither the race nor the gold medal, but rather combining the right doses of excitement and tranquillity; but most of us tend to jump all the way from stress to boredom and back, remaining as discontented with one as with the other.
If science is right and our happiness is determined by our biochemical system, then the only way to ensure lasting contentment is by rigging this system. Forget economic growth, social reforms and political revolutions: in order to raise global happiness levels, we need to manipulate human biochemistry. And this is exactly what we have begun doing over the last few decades.
Fifty years ago psychiatric drugs carried a severe stigma. Today, that stigma has been broken. For better or worse, a growing percentage of the population is taking psychiatric medicines on a regular basis, not only to cure debilitating mental illnesses, but also to face more mundane depressions and the occasional blues. For example, increasing numbers of schoolchildren take stimulants such as Ritalin.
In , 3. In the UK the number rose from 92, in to , in If pupils suffer from attention disorders, stress and low grades, perhaps we ought to blame outdated teaching methods, overcrowded classrooms and an unnaturally fast tempo of life. Maybe we should modify the schools rather than the kids? It is interesting to see how the arguments have evolved.
People have been quarrelling about education methods for thousands of years. Whether in ancient China or Victorian Britain, everybody had his or her pet method, and vehemently opposed all alternatives. Yet hitherto everybody still agreed on one thing: in order to improve education, we need to change the schools.
Fear, depression and trauma are not caused by shells, booby traps or car bombs. They are caused by hormones, neurotransmitters and neural networks. Two soldiers may find themselves shoulder to shoulder in the same ambush; one will freeze in terror, lose his wits and suffer from nightmares for years after the event; the other will charge forward courageously and win a medal. In half of the inmates in US federal prisons got there because of drugs; 38 per cent of Italian prisoners were convicted of drug-related offences; 55 per cent of inmates in the UK reported that they committed their crimes in connection with either consuming or trading drugs.
A report found that 62 per cent of Australian convicts were under the influence of drugs when committing the crime for which they were incarcerated. What some people hope to get by studying, working or raising a family, others try to obtain far more easily through the right dosage of molecules. This is an existential threat to the social and economic order, which is why countries wage a stubborn, bloody and hopeless war on biochemical crime.
The principle is clear: biochemical manipulations that strengthen political stability, social order and economic growth are allowed and even encouraged e. Manipulations that threaten stability and growth are banned. But each year new drugs are born in the research labs of universities, pharmaceutical companies and criminal organisations, and the needs of the state and the market also keep changing.
As the biochemical pursuit of happiness accelerates, so it will reshape politics, society and economics, and it will become ever harder to bring it under control. And drugs are just the beginning. In research labs experts are already working on more sophisticated ways of manipulating human biochemistry, such as sending direct electrical stimuli to appropriate spots in the brain, or genetically engineering the blueprints of our bodies. Others may agree that happiness is indeed the supreme good, yet would take issue with the biological definition of happiness as the experience of pleasant sensations.
Some 2, years ago Epicurus warned his disciples that immoderate pursuit of pleasure is likely to make them miserable rather than happy. A couple of centuries earlier Buddha had made an even more radical claim, teaching that the pursuit of pleasant sensations is in fact the very root of suffering. Such sensations are just ephemeral and meaningless vibrations. Hence no matter how many blissful or exciting sensations I may experience, they will never satisfy me.
If I identify happiness with fleeting pleasant sensations, and crave to experience more and more of them, I have no choice but to pursue them constantly. When I finally get them, they quickly disappear, and because the mere memory of past pleasures will not satisfy me, I have to start all over again. Even if I continue this pursuit for decades, it will never bring me any lasting achievement; on the contrary, the more I crave these pleasant sensations, the more stressed and dissatisfied I will become.
To attain real happiness, humans need to slow down the pursuit of pleasant sensations, not accelerate it. This Buddhist view of happiness has a lot in common with the biochemical view. Both agree that pleasant sensations disappear as fast as they arise, and that as long as people crave pleasant sensations without actually experiencing them, they remain dissatisfied. However, this problem has two very different solutions. The biochemical solution is to develop products and treatments that will provide humans with an unending stream of pleasant sensations, so we will never be without them.
According to Buddha, we can train our minds to observe carefully how all sensations constantly arise and pass. When the mind learns to see our sensations for what they are — ephemeral and meaningless vibrations — we lose interest in pursuing them. At present, humankind has far greater interest in the biochemical solution. No matter what monks in their Himalayan caves or philosophers in their ivory towers say, for the capitalist juggernaut, happiness is pleasure. With each passing year our tolerance for unpleasant sensations decreases, and our craving for pleasant sensations increases.
Both scientific research and economic activity are geared to that end, each year producing better painkillers, new ice-cream flavours, more comfortable mattresses, and more addictive games for our smartphones, so that we will not suffer a single boring moment while waiting for the bus. All this is hardly enough, of course. Since Homo sapiens was not adapted by evolution to experience constant pleasure, if that is what humankind nevertheless wants, ice cream and smartphone games will not do. It will be necessary to change our biochemistry and re-engineer our bodies and minds.
So we are working on that. You may debate whether it is good or bad, but it seems that the second great project of the twenty-first century — to ensure global happiness — will involve re- engineering Homo sapiens so that it can enjoy everlasting pleasure. The Gods of Planet Earth In seeking bliss and immortality humans are in fact trying to upgrade themselves into gods. Not just because these are divine qualities, but because in order to overcome old age and misery humans will first have to acquire godlike control of their own biological substratum. If we ever have the power to engineer death and pain out of our system, that same power will probably be sufficient to engineer our system in almost any manner we like, and manipulate our organs, emotions and intelligence in myriad ways.
You could buy for yourself the strength of Hercules, the sensuality of Aphrodite, the wisdom of Athena or the madness of Dionysus if that is what you are into. Up till now increasing human power relied mainly on upgrading our external tools. In the future it may rely more on upgrading the human body and mind, or on merging directly with our tools. Biological engineering starts with the insight that we are far from realising the full potential of organic bodies.
For 4 billion years natural selection has been tweaking and tinkering with these bodies, so that we have gone from amoeba to reptiles to mammals to Sapiens. Yet there is no reason to think that Sapiens is the last station. Relatively small changes in genes, hormones and neurons were enough to transform Homo erectus — who could produce nothing more impressive than flint knives — into Homo sapiens, who produces spaceships and computers. Who knows what might be the outcome of a few more changes to our DNA, hormonal system or brain structure.
Bioengineering is not going to wait patiently for natural selection to work its magic. Instead, bioengineers will take the old Sapiens body, and intentionally rewrite its genetic code, rewire its brain circuits, alter its biochemical balance, and even grow entirely new limbs. They will thereby create new godlings, who might be as different from us Sapiens as we are different from Homo erectus. Cyborg engineering will go a step further, merging the organic body with non-organic devices such as bionic hands, artificial eyes, or millions of nano-robots that will navigate our bloodstream, diagnose problems and repair damage.
Such a cyborg could enjoy abilities far beyond those of any organic body. For example, all parts of an organic body must be in direct contact with one another in order to function. A cyborg, in contrast, could exist in numerous places at the same time. A cyborg doctor could perform emergency surgeries in Tokyo, in Chicago and in a space station on Mars, without ever leaving her Stockholm office. She will need only a fast Internet connection, and a few pairs of bionic eyes and hands. On second thoughts, why pairs?
Why not quartets? Indeed, even those are actually superfluous. Monkeys have recently learned to control bionic hands and feet disconnected from their bodies, through electrodes implanted in their brains. The helmet requires no brain implants. It functions by reading the electric signals passing through your scalp. If you want to turn on the light in the kitchen, you just wear the helmet, imagine some preprogrammed mental sign e. The chips are about the size of a grain of rice and store personalised security information that enables workers to open doors and operate photocopiers with a wave of their hand.
Soon they hope to make payments in the same way. A bolder approach dispenses with organic parts altogether, and hopes to engineer completely non-organic beings. Neural networks will be replaced by intelligent software, which could surf both the virtual and non-virtual worlds, free from the limitations of organic chemistry. After 4 billion years of wandering inside the kingdom of organic compounds, life will break out into the vastness of the inorganic realm, and will take shapes that we cannot envision even in our wildest dreams.
After all, our wildest dreams are still the product of organic chemistry. Foretelling the future was never easy, and revolutionary biotechnologies make it even harder. For as difficult as it is to predict the impact of new technologies in fields like transportation, communication and energy, technologies for upgrading humans pose a completely different kind of challenge.
For thousands of years history was full of technological, economic, social and political upheavals. Yet one thing remained constant: humanity itself. Our tools and institutions are very different from those of biblical times, but the deep structures of the human mind remain the same.
This is why we can still find ourselves between the pages of the Bible, in the writings of Confucius or within the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides. These classics were created by humans just like us, hence we feel that they talk about us. In modern theatre productions, Oedipus, Hamlet and Othello may wear jeans and T-shirts and have Facebook accounts, but their emotional conflicts are the same as in the original play. However, once technology enables us to re-engineer human minds, Homo sapiens will disappear, human history will come to an end and a completely new kind of process will begin, which people like you and me cannot comprehend.
Many scholars try to predict how the world will look in the year or This is a waste of time. Any worthwhile prediction must take into account the ability to re-engineer human minds, and this is impossible. Though the details are therefore obscure, we can nevertheless be sure about the general direction of history. In the twenty-first century, the third big project of humankind will be to acquire for us divine powers of creation and destruction, and upgrade Homo sapiens into Homo deus.
This third project obviously subsumes the first two projects, and is fuelled by them. We want the ability to re-engineer our bodies and minds in order, above all, to escape old age, death and misery, but once we have it, who knows what else we might do with such ability? So we may well think of the new human agenda as consisting really of only one project with many branches : attaining divinity.
When speaking of upgrading humans into gods, think more in terms of Greek gods or Hindu devas rather than the omnipotent biblical sky father. Our descendants would still have their foibles, kinks and limitations, just as Zeus and Indra had theirs. But they could love, hate, create and destroy on a much grander scale than us. Throughout history most gods were believed to enjoy not omnipotence but rather specific super-abilities such as the ability to design and create living beings; to transform their own bodies; to control the environment and the weather; to read minds and to communicate at a distance; to travel at very high speeds; and of course to escape death and live indefinitely.
Humans are in the business of acquiring all these abilities, and then some. Certain traditional abilities that were considered divine for many millennia have today become so commonplace that we hardly think about them. The average person now moves and communicates across distances much more easily than the Greek, Hindu or African gods of old.
For example, the Igbo people of Nigeria believe that the creator god Chukwu initially wanted to make people immortal. He sent a dog to tell humans that when someone dies, they should sprinkle ashes on the corpse, and the body will come back to life. Unfortunately, the dog was tired and he dallied on the way. The impatient Chukwu then sent a sheep, telling her to make haste with this important message. Alas, when the breathless sheep reached her destination, she garbled the instructions, and told the humans to bury their dead, thus making death permanent. This is why to this day we humans must die.
If only Chukwu had a Twitter account instead of relying on laggard dogs and dim-witted sheep to deliver his messages! In ancient agricultural societies, most religions revolved not around metaphysical questions and the afterlife, but around the very mundane issue of increasing agricultural output. Thus the Old Testament God never promises any rewards or punishments after death. Be careful! Scientists today can do much better than the Old Testament God. Thanks to artificial fertilisers, industrial insecticides and genetically modified crops, agricultural production nowadays outstrips the highest expectations ancient farmers had of their gods.
And the parched state of Israel no longer fears that some angry deity will restrain the heavens and stop all rain — for the Israelis have recently built a huge desalination plant on the shores of the Mediterranean, so they can now get all their drinking water from the sea. So far we have competed with the gods of old by creating better and better tools.
In the not too distant future, we might create superhumans who will outstrip the ancient gods not in their tools, but in their bodily and mental faculties. If and when we get there, however, divinity will become as mundane as cyberspace — a wonder of wonders that we just take for granted. We can be quite certain that humans will make a bid for divinity, because humans have many reasons to desire such an upgrade, and many ways to achieve it.
Even if one promising path turns out to be a dead end, alternative routes will remain open. For example, we may discover that the human genome is far too complicated for serious manipulation, but this will not prevent the development of brain—computer interfaces, nano-robots or artificial intelligence. No need to panic, though.
At least not immediately. Upgrading Sapiens will be a gradual historical process rather than a Hollywood apocalypse. Homo sapiens is not going to be exterminated by a robot revolt. This will not happen in a day, or a year. Indeed, it is already happening right now, through innumerable mundane actions. Every day millions of people decide to grant their smartphone a bit more control over their lives or try a new and more effective antidepressant drug.
Can Someone Please Hit the Brakes? Calm explanations aside, many people panic when they hear of such possibilities. This is what we fear collectively, as a species, when we hear of superhumans. We sense that in such a world, our identity, our dreams and even our fears will be irrelevant, and we will have nothing more to contribute. Whatever you are today — be it a devout Hindu cricket player or an aspiring lesbian journalist — in an upgraded world you will feel like a Neanderthal hunter in Wall Street.
Nowadays, however, our world of meaning might collapse within decades. You cannot count on death to save you from becoming completely irrelevant. Scientific research and technological developments are moving at a far faster rate than most of us can grasp. If you speak with the experts, many of them will tell you that we are still very far away from genetically engineered babies or human-level artificial intelligence.
But most experts think on a timescale of academic grants and college jobs. I still remember the day I first came across the Internet. It was back in , when I was in high school. I went with a couple of buddies to visit our friend Ido who is now a computer scientist. We wanted to play table tennis. Ido was already a huge computer fan, and before opening the ping-pong table he insisted on showing us the latest wonder. For a minute all we could hear were squeaks, shrieks and buzzes, and then silence.
We mumbled and grumbled, but Ido tried again. And again.
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At last he gave a whoop and announced that he had managed to connect his computer to the central computer at the nearby university. But you could put all kinds of things there. That was less than twenty-five years ago at the time of writing. Who knows what will come to pass twenty-five years from now?
Insurance companies, pension funds, health systems and finance ministries are already aghast at the jump in life expectancy. People are living much longer than expected, and there is not enough money to pay for their pensions and medical treatment. As seventy threatens to become the new forty, experts are calling to raise the retirement age, and to restructure the entire job market.
When people realise how fast we are rushing towards the great unknown, and that they cannot count even on death to shield them from it, their reaction is to hope that somebody will hit the brakes and slow us down. But we cannot hit the brakes, for several reasons. Firstly, nobody knows where the brakes are. While some experts are familiar with developments in one field, such as artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, big data or genetics, no one is an expert on everything.
No one is therefore capable of connecting all the dots and seeing the full picture. Different fields influence one another in such intricate ways that even the best minds cannot fathom how breakthroughs in artificial intelligence might impact nanotechnology, or vice versa. Nobody can absorb all the latest scientific discoveries, nobody can predict how the global economy will look in ten years, and nobody has a clue where we are heading in such a rush.
Since no one understands the system any more, no one can stop it. Secondly, if we somehow succeed in hitting the brakes, our economy will collapse, along with our society. As explained in a later chapter, the modern economy needs constant and indefinite growth in order to survive.
An economy built on everlasting growth needs endless projects — just like the quests for immortality, bliss and divinity. Well, if we need limitless projects, why not settle for bliss and immortality, and at least put aside the frightening quest for superhuman powers?
Because it is inextricable from the other two. When you develop bionic legs that enable paraplegics to walk again, you can also use the same technology to upgrade healthy people.
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When you discover how to stop memory loss among older people, the same treatments might enhance the memory of the young. No clear line separates healing from upgrading. Medicine almost always begins by saving people from falling below the norm, but the same tools and know-how can then be used to surpass the norm. Viagra began life as a treatment for blood-pressure problems. To the surprise and delight of Pfizer, it transpired that Viagra can also cure impotence. It enabled millions of men to regain normal sexual abilities; but soon enough men who had no impotence problems in the first place began using the same pill to surpass the norm, and acquire sexual powers they never had before.
Modern plastic surgery was born in the First World War, when Harold Gillies began treating facial injuries in the Aldershot military hospital. Though plastic surgery continued to help the sick and wounded, it devoted increasing attention to upgrading the healthy. Nowadays plastic surgeons make millions in private clinics whose explicit and sole aim is to upgrade the healthy and beautify the wealthy. We are more likely to slide down a slippery slope. It begins with parents whose genetic profile puts their children at high risk of deadly genetic diseases. So they perform in vitro fertilisation, and test the DNA of the fertilised egg.
If everything is in order, all well and good. But if the DNA test discovers the dreaded mutations — the embryo is destroyed. Yet why take a chance by fertilising just one egg? Better fertilise several, so that even if three or four are defective there is at least one good embryo. When this in vitro selection procedure becomes acceptable and cheap enough, its usage may spread. Mutations are a ubiquitous risk. All people carry in their DNA some harmful mutations and less-than- optimal alleles.
Sexual reproduction is a lottery. A famous — and probably apocryphal — anecdote tells of a meeting in between Nobel Prize laureate Anatole France and the beautiful and talented dancer Isadora Duncan. Fertilise several eggs, and choose the one with the best combination. Once stem-cell research enables us to create an unlimited supply of human embryos on the cheap, you can select your optimal baby from among hundreds of candidates, all carrying your DNA, all perfectly natural, and none requiring any futuristic genetic engineering.
Iterate this procedure for a few generations, and you could easily end up with superhumans or a creepy dystopia. But what if after fertilising even numerous eggs, you find that all of them contain some deadly mutations? Should you destroy all the embryos? Instead of doing that, why not replace the problematic genes? A breakthrough case involves mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria are tiny organelles within human cells, which produce the energy used by the cell.
Defective mitochondrial DNA leads to various debilitating or even deadly diseases. From a purely technical perspective, Alana has three biological parents. A year later, in , the US government banned this treatment, due to safety and ethical concerns. Following selection and replacement, the next potential step is amendment. Once it becomes possible to amend deadly genes, why go through the hassle of inserting some foreign DNA, when you can just rewrite the code and turn a dangerous mutant gene into its benign version?
Then we might start using the same mechanism to fix not just lethal genes, but also those responsible for less deadly illnesses, for autism, for stupidity and for obesity. Who would like his or her child to suffer from any of these? Suppose a genetic test indicates that your would-be daughter will in all likelihood be smart, beautiful and kind — but will suffer from chronic depression.
And while you are at it, why not give the child a little push? Life is hard and challenging even for healthy people. So it would surely come in handy if the little girl had a stronger-than-normal immune system, an above-average memory or a particularly sunny disposition. Would you have your child lag behind? And if the government forbids all citizens from engineering their babies, what if the North Koreans are doing it and producing amazing geniuses, artists and athletes that far outperform ours? And like that, in baby steps, we are on our way to a genetic child catalogue.
Healing is the initial justification for every upgrade. Find some professors experimenting in genetic engineering or brain—computer interfaces, and ask them why they are engaged in such research. And if we could connect brains and computers directly, we could cure schizophrenia. When we successfully connect brains and computers, will we use this technology only to cure schizophrenia? If anybody really believes this, then they may know a great deal about brains and computers, but far less about the human psyche and human society. Once you achieve a momentous breakthrough, you cannot restrict its use to healing and completely forbid using it for upgrading.
Of course humans can and do limit their use of new technologies. Thus the eugenics movement fell from favour after the Second World War, and though trade in human organs is now both possible and potentially very lucrative, it has so far remained a peripheral activity. Designer babies may one day become as technologically feasible as murdering people to harvest their organs — yet remain as peripheral. Some guns appear on stage without ever being fired. Precisely because we have some choice regarding the use of new technologies, we had better understand what is happening and make up our minds about it before it makes up our minds for us.
The Paradox of Knowledge The prediction that in the twenty-first century humankind is likely to aim for immortality, bliss and divinity may anger, alienate or frighten any number of people, so a few clarifications are in order. Firstly, this is not what most individuals will actually do in the twenty- first century. It is what humankind as a collective will do. Most people will probably play only a minor role, if any, in these projects. Even if famine, plague and war become less prevalent, billions of humans in developing countries and seedy neighbourhoods will continue to deal with poverty, illness and violence even as the elites are already reaching for eternal youth and godlike powers.
This seems patently unjust. Only once the last sword is beaten into a ploughshare should we turn our minds to the next big thing. Those living in palaces have always had different agendas to those living in shacks, and that is unlikely to change in the twenty-first century. Secondly, this is a historical prediction, not a political manifesto.
Even if we disregard the fate of slum-dwellers, it is far from clear that we should be aiming at immortality, bliss and divinity. Adopting these particular projects might be a big mistake. But history is full of big mistakes. Given our past record and our current values, we are likely to reach out for bliss, divinity and immortality — even if it kills us. Thirdly, reaching out is not the same as obtaining.
History is often shaped by exaggerated hopes. My prediction is focused on what humankind will try to achieve in the twenty-first century — not what it will succeed in achieving. Our future economy, society and politics will be shaped by the attempt to overcome death.
It does not follow that in humans will be immortal. Fourthly, and most importantly, this prediction is less of a prophecy and more a way of discussing our present choices. If the discussion makes us choose differently, so that the prediction is proven wrong, all the better. Some complex systems, such as the weather, are oblivious to our predictions. The process of human development, in contrast, reacts to them. Indeed, the better our forecasts, the more reactions they engender. Hence paradoxically, as we accumulate more data and increase our computing power, events become wilder and more unexpected.