Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Robo Sapiens

I want to share with you the most engaging talk that I witnessed in recent years.  The lecture, which can be found on ted.com, was given by Juan Enriquez in February 2009, as the economic collapse was beginning to be sharply felt in North America.  The eighteen minute presentation shook me to the core.  While it moves along in an entertaining fashion, it eventually ends up in extremely intriguing territory, with fascinating yet plausible predictions for the relative near future of mankind.  I will give a brief summary of the content of the lecture (link for talk).

Among other things, it is unsustainable practices that have led to the economic downturn.  Companies with tunnel vision have taken the shareholders dollar and put it through the shredder.  Today, when trying to move forward from our dark economic situation, we must be very careful where our time, energy, and of course, money, is invested.  More than ever, our focus should be held firmly upon areas with anticipated growth.  According to futurist, Juan Enriquez, our attention should turn to science, and in particular, the fields of cell growth, tissue growth, and robotics.

A major technological wave is headed towards man, and the nations that ride this wave will be rewarded for having done so; nations who do not see it coming will be blindsided, and their futures will not be pretty.  So, what does this wave look like?

Certain areas of biology are seeing rapid growth.  Generating cells and tissues in a controlled lab environment is becoming commonplace.  In recent years, new surgical options have opened up for certain patients due to ingenuity in manipulating stem cells and tissues.  An artificial trachea may now be formed by spray-painting cartilage with the patient’s trachea cells.  Artificial bladders have also been synthesized and installed into the bodies of several patients.  Perhaps the most incredible recent innovation is the ability to transform skin cells into stem cells.  This essentially means that your skin, with proper manipulation, can be converted into any part of your body.

Robotics engineering is seeing advances on a similar scale to that of bioengineering.  Today, robots are being built for all kinds of purposes.  Many can emulate the motions and tasks of organic beings.  Though not intelligent, some robots can walk on uneven surfaces and up and down hills.  There is one at McGill University that can swim.  There is another at Harvard the size of a penny that can fly, with or without a buzzing sound.  Robots are becoming utilized for military purposes, and also for entertainment in theme parks.

The crossroads between bio and robo advances are compelling.  Leading up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Oscar Pistorius, a double-amputee sprinter, won a court appeal that allowed him to compete in the regular Olympic Games.  Previously, he had dominated the field in the Special Olympics.  The only reason he did not represent his country at the games was that he failed to qualify; his qualification run was slow by a hair.  We will see a mixed field of sprinters in the coming decades as the technology for “impaired” sprinters improves.  Before long, the blades attached to these athletes’ lower legs will leave athletes like Usain Bolt in the dust.  By the year 2050, all of the world’s fastest runners will have artificial legs.

Let us look at other physical disabilities.  Today’s cutting edge technology will soon allow blind people to see light and dark.  Although these first cut optical implants will not allow blind people to see as well as someone with unimpaired vision, the technology will evolve.  In some time, a blind person will be able to see with 20/20 vision.  Not long after this milestone is met, it will be surpassed, and before long, humans will be able to see in infrared and other frequency spectra.  Imagine if somebody could magnify an image by one hundred times without the use of a microscope.  Again, the disadvantaged will become the advantaged, the disabled enabled.
Similar advances are occurring today for the deaf.  Again, evolving technology will one day allow the hearing impaired to hear like anyone else, and soon after that, allow them to hear with greater precision and with a wider frequency range.  Perhaps they will have dials on the sides of their heads to monitor volume and frequency range.  By now, you probably see where this is going.

As Darwin pointed out, evolution is a natural state.  We often forget that Homo sapiens are just one kind of hominid.  Twenty-one other species of hominid, like Neanderthals, have existed on Earth.  It is more common to have co-existence of various species of hominid than to have just one as we do today.  But, life evolves. 
Enriquez concludes that at some point in the 21st Century, we will see a species overlap amongst hominids.  He calls it Homo evolutes, because it will represent a hominid that takes control of its own evolution ... Heavy stuff.  I think I would call it Robo sapiens, because it sounds cooler.
Either way, man is on the verge of being presented with a choice: To evolve or not to evolve?  If these near-term predictions hold true, and I believe they will, then we will not only see those with disabilities taking advantage of self-improving opportunities.  After all, many already pay large sums of money for laser eye surgery, hair removal, whiter teeth, etc.  So, someone with adequate vision and hearing may one day opt for super vision, and super hearing.  It is clear that along with these technological advances, ethical questions begin to emerge.  You can be sure that religious groups will be all over this stuff with large signs and megaphones.

It is quite possible that dividing lines may occur between the hominids.  In the Marvel series, X-Men, evolution occurs naturally at the DNA level (mutation), and mutants and non-mutants try to share the world as tension builds between them.  Perhaps, with the emergence of a new species, such a scenario could occur.  Acceptance across dividing lines would be essential.

What does the wave of technology look like?  The extents to which these scenarios will play out are hard to predict, but the general picture presented here urges us to pay attention - either learn to surf or stay out of the ocean.  A species that does not change to best thrive in its environment risks extinction; the same can be said about a business.  CEOs of technological companies should consider where they fit in to this brave new world.  Furthermore, organic beings should be extra respectful towards the disabled, as they will be the first ones to leap tall buildings in a single bound.


Tom said...

Enhanced physical and mental capability is all well and good, and I am in agreement that it is a matter of when not if. I also agree that modifications/enhancements of this type will have a socially stratifying effect.

However, the most pressing and scary issue to me Steve, on a similar but divergent thread, is the extension of human lifespan. Add another 50 years or so, and that is not at all beyond imagination, and our entire economic system, food supply and just about everything else will crash and burn like nothing we have seen before in human history. God forbid they figure out how to prevent cellular regeneration from degrading/shutting down all together... Then it's literally a whole new world.

The Engineer said...

Tom, let me try to relax your nerves. I believe that our ability to generate low cost energy will improve faster than human life extension technology. Or maybe we are all screwed.