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The Human-Techno Future: How Weird? How Soon?

August 3, 2005

In his new book, Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies—And What It Means to Be Human, (Random House, 2005), author Joel Garreau describes research so cutting edge it seems mind-boggling:

• A telekinetic monkey at Duke University in North Carolina uses its mind to move a robotic arm 600 miles (a thousand kilometers) away in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

• At a Pentagon R-and-D facility in Virginia, program managers aim to create the ultimate warriors—soldiers that can fight without sleeping, tell their bodies to stop bleeding, and regrow lost hands and limbs.

Garreau notes that regular doublings in computing power are driving unprecedented advances in genetics, robotics, information systems, and nanotechnology. These "GRIN" technologies are following a curve of exponential growth that could redefine life as we know it within 10-20 years.

National Geographic News recently sat down with Garreau, a Washington Post editor and reporter, to discuss his new book, technology, and three scenarios of our future.

Why did you write the book?

The point of Radical Evolution is to try to let the ordinary reader in on a conversation that right now is really only occurring at the top level of scientists and engineers around the country. I mean, this is what they're talking about that I don't think most people know.

I really don't care that much about technology, per se. I'm really interested in human beings, who we are, how we got that way, where we're headed, and what makes us tick. So the gee-whiz technology is not what I'm about at all. It's just a place to stand to look at what it means about the future of being human.

So what might that future entail? You talk, for example, about "enhanced" humans.

Already you see what Viagra does, not to mention Botox, and serotonin reuptake inhibitors in personality [for depression]. Well that is just the primitive form. This is increasing on an exponential curve. You're talking about being given enhancements that will allow you to think faster, to have better memory, to be physically ripped and beautiful without having to put in a lot of effort.

The big question is, Is there going to be an arms race among people who will have to compete with enhanced people like that? Among the "enhanced" and the "naturals" [who think enhancements are creepy] and a third group—people who, for reasons of geography or money, don't have access to these enhancement technologies, and they envy and despise those who do.

If you have these three different kinds of humans walking around in the next 10 or 15 years, is this going to be a recipe for conflict? It's been a long time since we've seen more than one kind of human walking the Earth at the same time. Twenty-five or fifty thousand years, depending on whether you're going back to the Cro-Magnon or the Neanderthals. And when more than one kind of critter starts competing over the same ecological niche, it usually ends up badly for one of them.

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Photo: Joel Garreau
Exponential leaps in technology may soon redefine what it means to be human, says Joel Garreau, author of the new book, Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies—And What It Means to Be Human. If he's right, prepare to meet "enhanced" humans.

Photograph copyright Julie Ewan