Future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades!

Elon Musk, The Matrix, Nanobots, and gene editing.

“The big feature of human-level intelligence is not what it does when it works but what it does when it’s stuck.” — Marvin Minsky. 1927–2016.

A colleague recently sent me a link to an article and video of a panel discussion on Artificial Intelligence with Elon Musk. It’s a long video but worth your while if you’re interested in AI and the future of technology and, by extension, the future of humanity.

If you are only interested in Musk’s thoughts, reading the article is sufficient since it includes most of his comments. If, however, you want to hear some of the other panelists such as the brilliant Ray Kurzweil and Sam Harris, you’ll have to watch the video.

Musk points out that we’re already cyborgs, by some simplistic definition of the word: “By far you have more power, more capability, than the President of the United States had 30 years ago. If you have an Internet link you have an oracle of wisdom, you can communicate to millions of people, you can communicate to the rest of Earth instantly. I mean, these are magical powers that didn’t exist, not that long ago. So everyone is already superhuman, and a cyborg,” [at 33:56].

To the extent that our laptops and smartphones connect us to the internet and give us instant access to a world of information, they make us a new type of being, one that didn’t exist just a few years ago.

Musk goes so far as to describe a future in which we bypass keyboards, mice, and even natural languages and instead develop technologies that allow us to directly plug computers into our spinal cord.

Given recent advances in nanotechnology, computing, genetic engineering, and machine learning — to mention just a few of the disciplines involved — it’s easy to see an ever-accelerating rush toward a science fiction future in which we’re all plugged into The Matrix using a “high bandwidth interconnect to the cortex” (according to Musk), nanobots fighting disease in our bloodstream, our mental functions assisted by and augmented with artificial intelligence. Science fiction stuff, to be sure, but more science and less fiction as we continue to make advances in every academic field imaginable.

As Arthur C. Clarke famously quipped, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Well said. Imagine explaining the Internet, nanobots, gene editing, and human ears grown on laboratory mice to a time traveler from the nineteenth century and you’ll see that Musk’s proposed future is not too far-fetched.

Ray Kurzweil published The Singularity is Near in 2005, describing a time in the very near future when we will not only augment our intelligence with that of machines but become one with them. I think more and more people see today that the first baby steps towards that vision have already materialized across several scientific disciplines in just the past few years.

For those of you rolling your eyes, just think about the next few incremental steps and you’ll see a path to such a “cyborg” future. Virtual and Augmented Reality. Natural Language Processing. Facial and gesture recognition. DNA cloning. Gene editing. Prosthetic limbs that can be manipulated purely through brain waves.

The list goes on and on. These technologies are either taken for granted today or on the verge of broad adoption, the same technologies that would have been considered science fiction by most people even fifty years ago.

I also highly recommend reading “The Gene: An Intimate History”, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. We have already deciphered much of our DNA. We can clone living beings, including humans. Remember Dolly the Sheep? We can edit our own DNA, modifying our destiny, if we wish.

Genetic scientists are doing a good job policing themselves as they grapple with the ethical implications of these recent advances. So far, we’ve mostly utilized these techniques to fight genetic diseases but rogue scientists (and rogue regimes) won’t necessarily abide by those self-imposed bans.

So, should we ban gene editing altogether? It’s too late for that. The genie is out of the bottle and there’s no putting it back. And given the advent of CRISPR, gene editing has already become affordable and commonplace. There is much good that can be done with this technology and we shouldn’t let the potential for its abuse stop us from doing so.

More broadly speaking, the question is not whether we should enhance our physical and mental capabilities through science. The question is which ones first and how quickly do we get there.

Despite what Hollywood says, I’m not too worried about nightmare scenarios like The Terminator movies with machines becoming our overlords any time soon. Picasso was right when he said, of computers: “But they are useless. They can only give you answers.” They don’t (yet) know how to ask the questions.

I have yet to see a computer spontaneously ask a question and then set about to answer it, and I don’t expect that to happen any time soon. Until that day comes, we’re still in control. I’m far more worried about rogue players using computers for nefarious reasons than for those computers themselves to suddenly become sentient (and evil) and try to take over the world.

“Future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades!” — Timbuk3.

The future is bright, I’m sure of it. And if it’s not, that’ll be because of something we humans do to each other, not because of something scary evil computers do. That’s the reply I sent to my colleague after listening to Musk.

I trust in the uncanny ability of human beings to continue to pull rabbits out of our hats at the most improbable moments. Take a look back at the amazing scientific advances of the past couple of centuries and remember that they happened amid massive world wars, widespread famine, natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, staggering poverty, pandemics like the Spanish Influenza that killed tens of millions in a single shot, dictators and despots who plundered their own countries and killed their own citizens, etc.

Always be an optimist in the long run. Be a pessimist in the short term. Be a skeptic. Question everything. That’s what science has taught us. But be an optimist long term. That’s what history has shown us.

Be an optimist. The alternative is not much fun any way.

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