Heave, hell or prevail?

Author: Claudia Writer

It's a sunny morning on April 13, and students are streaming into the auditorium at the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business, where speaker Joel Garreau waits

The Washington Post reporter, who appears jived at the chance to deliver the news in person, soon gets down to business.

Garreau's opening remarks make clear his mission: to open the eyes and minds of his audience about how fast their world is changing.

What blows his mind -- and Garreau thinks it should blow theirs, too -- is that on the far side of everyday devices like iPods and cell phones are cutting-edge technologies with the potential to change not only the world people live in, but something profoundly fundamental that they have
always shared: a common human nature.

"We are, right now," Garreau says, "in the process of modifying our minds, our memories, our metabolisms, our personalities and our kids." The author of "Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- and What It Means to Be Human" was invited to speak as part of the college's Ten Years Hence lecture series, which invites national experts to campus to talk about the developments they see happening within the next 10 years in their fields.

In that vein, Garreau, who writes about the future, tells his audience that time is running short. Very short.

It took only 66 years for humans to progress from the first flight to walking on the moon. And it took even less time to go from that walk to the Information Age: 20 years. What we're facing, he says, is a sharp curve of exponential change.

Garreau writes in his book that, after cloning Dolly, decoding the human genome, "Who is not braced for the first renegade human clone? ... Will we soon pass some point," he asks, "where we are so altered by our imaginations and inventions as to be unrecognizable to Shakespeare or the writers of the ancient Greek plays?"

A telekinetic monkey at Duke University, he says, can move a mechanical arm hundreds of miles away simply by thinking a command.Work done at DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), funded by our government, takes for granted its role in engineering nothing less than humankind's evolution. The agency's Metabolically Dominant Soldier program is doing research on controlling cellular metabolism. More energy-efficient muscles, its researchers reason, would make soldiers less likely to get hungry or weak, make bad decisions, get killed.

At other institutions in our country and around the world, researchers are making strides toward interfacing not only machines and animals, but machines and humans.

Such research helps explain why, in Garreau's and others' minds, we are in the midst of a revolution that is "the defining cultural, social and political issue of our age.

"It is about transformation" and the fact that we've seized "the keys of creation." Technology will allow us, and our children even more so, "to transcend seemingly impossible physical and mental barriers."For that reason, the technology researchers he talked to for his book said they foresee "our children and children's children as no longer being like us," Garreau writes.

"They call them transhuman or posthuman. They see our lives changing more dramatically in the next few decades than in all of recorded history."

Garreau imagines three possible scenarios for the future. They are not predictions, he says, but "imaginative stories about what the future may be like."

In the first, the Heaven Scenario, human transcendence would be a version of paradise. Through computers and/or genetic engineering, we would possess greater knowledge, intelligence and creativity. We would experience world peace and have universal prosperity.

In the second, the Hell Scenario, we would become so dependent on machines, we would accept their decisions on everything. But without struggle, aspiration, love, pain, difficult moral choices, we would lose our humanity, our human dignity.In the third, the Prevail Scenario, we would muddle through as we've done throughout history, picking and choosing among technologies. Researchers would sometimes decide not to pursue certain topics. Technology would help close the interpersonal gap among humans by fostering more connectedness. And if we did reach transcendence, it would be marked by greater compassion, love, a sense of being part of something larger than ourselves. We would control technology instead of it controlling us, Garreau writes.

Cleo Haynes, account manager for the college's department of executive education, identifies with that view. "I'm a firm believer that we will prevail. ... We've muddled through lots of things," she says.

Some technologists involved in the GRIN technologies (genetic, robotic, information and nano), however, when asked about the meaning of all of this -- especially the potential for hell on Earth -- take the attitude of "That's not my department," Garreau says in his book.

"We have handed ourselves this problem," Garreau says. "Now the question is 'Where do we get the wisdom to manage this transcendence?' "

Garreau wants his audience, as well as his book's readers, to take in how critical it is for humans, including those who identify themselves as people of faith, to begin to grapple now with technology -- not in the middle of a crisis. He quotes prominent scientists who say "The most important thing is not to leave it (creating a new culture) to scientists" and who urge people to take ownership of their future.After interviewing numerous prominent leaders in the field of technology, as well as other thinkers and researchers, to write his book, Garreau concludes that technology's impact on our culture and values has created a compelling need for probing conversations about its place in our future. He challenges people to lift the taboo about humankind's "intense desire to break the bonds of mortality" and deal with it.

He has heard some bio conservative voices ask, Garreau writes, " 'Could it be that what it means to be human involves knowing that you will suffer, death will come and you will know it? If we eliminate suffering and death, will we substantially reduce what it means to be human?' "

Garreau says he wouldn't agree with their answer if it were 'Stop everything,' but thinks it's "a splendid question."

What Garreau values is the follow-up to raising questions: conversations about how we should respond to the new technologies and the radical changes they are driving. "One of the things people can do is keep this conversation going about exactly what do you mean by 'human.' What is it about 'human' that matters? What is it that we want to save? What are we going to be glad to see go?"

What Notre Dame has going for it is that its students and faculty are free "to bring up the subject of God," Garreau says during a later discussion over lunch. "It's not thought of as weird. ... To routinely have people being able to raise their hand and say, 'Is this the right thing to do?' he adds, sets them "apart from a lot of the world." Getting people to ask tough questions -- ethical and moral questions -- is enormously important.Carolyn Woo, dean of the college, agrees. "God gives humans creativity to solve problems and do good things," she says, but even at Notre Dame, people often don't know "how to convene those questions." It worries her that "our ability to put technology to work is 10 times faster than our ability, our wisdom, to think about the use of that technology."

As everyone prepares to leave the table, Garreau comments on the many Americans who identify themselves as religious or spiritual.

"There's obviously a big hunger for this. Maybe what we need is the language, a way to discuss this without appearing to be a fruitcake," he says.

John Gaski, a business professor, pipes up. "It's called marketing," he says, and everyone breaks up with laughter.

Garreau says simply, "It could be."