I gave both Jonathans the new Joel Garreau book Radical Evolution, and of course read it myself before passing it on. That’s the way we do things in my family. The book is divided into 3 sections: the Heaven scenario of all the ways that technical assistance and self-enhancement is going to cure diseases, make us brilliant, and provide for our needs Very Soon; the Hell scenario, in which one of these GRIN technologies (genetic, robotic, information, nanotech) runs amok and does something devastating to us Very Soon; and the Prevail scenario in which some things go wrong with the new technologies, but mankind muddles along anyhow, Like Always.
I could tell this was going to be worrisome when even the Heaven scenario had parts that I thought were bad for humankind. Ray Kurzweil, the prophet of everything will be more ducky than you imagined, is already an eccentric guy and will be signing up for every self-enhancement he can get his mitts on. Facing the possibility that none of us will want our own children to fall behind and fail to become uber-persons, the thought is that a whole lot of folks are going to be enhanced. A subset of us will rocket into superintelligence so quickly that they will be a dominant race. And that’s the Heaven scenario, remember.
There are lots of interesting possible discussions about this, including whether it is at all likely, which I will be posting on over the next few weeks. For the moment, my concern is the comments of the people making these decisions. In all three scenarios, the people inventing and controlling these technologies are strange in a specific way: they have symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome. According to this study reported in the NYTimes, that shouldn’t be very surprising.
My worry is not that they are statistically likely to have Asperger’s, and thus be difficult to work with for the folks around them. My concern is what I actually read -- the childishness of the philosophical underpinnings of their justifications. Like bright sixth-graders who get over-technical and have to correct things said in their presence (That years don’t have 365 days, but 365 days, five hours, 48 minutes, 45 seconds, for example), Asperger-y people get stuck on such things and cannot let them go. If you say something is teal, and they think it’s just a little too green for that, there is no reasoning with them about it. They will sound like they are reasoning, they will think in their own minds that they are reasoning. But some glitchy thing in their brain will be telling them it’s not teal, and that glitch is immovable.
Ray Kurzweil sounds frightenly like Weston in the last scenes of CS Lewis's Out of The Silent Planet. I always thought Weston was a poorly-written, bombastic fool, and Lewis himself acknowledged that it was hard to imagine such a buffoon inventing anything, let alone a spaceship. Lewis regretted making the character so unconvincing and exaggerated. Now, 60 years later, here he is, in the flesh. Lewis has again proven prescient as to what the natural extension of a train of thought will be.
This rigidity carries over to ethical and philosophical ideas. A single premise will be held in the face of all reason, for example: It’s better to live long than die young. This genetic flip will make people live longer. Therefore it is good. Any additional pluses or minuses may be given lip-service, but will ultimately carry no weight. A particularly chilling example from real life is from Jaron Lanier. Now Lanier is actually one of the reasonable, moderate, balanced voices from the high-tech crowd. When challenged by a clergyman at a conference that he and others were just boys playing with things they didn’t understand, he went back and thought about it. What he came up with is that the churches had failed to keep up with technology by not coming up with ceremonies for operations and other tech events. Apparently the fascination of all cultures with birth, death, marriage, and coming of age does not capture the essence of life. Essentially, Lanier is angry that the churches have not developed ways of blessing whatever the hell it is that scientists want to do.