Saturday, August 22, 2009

Is Technology the Ultimate Answer?

I’ve posted about Juan Enriquez before and his talks on the TED web site. His latest talk about the future of our species is both troubling and exciting on a number of levels.

What Enriquez posits is that we are in the midst of a “reboot” in which our entire civilization will be transformed by developments in genetic reprogramming, tissue regeneration and robotics. He suggests that the developments in these fields will be able to overcome the current economic problems with long term solutions to both human health, and generate a new boom economy. In his talk he suggests that without these developments our current economic situation is direr than we even imagine.

The examples that Enriquez points to are amazing—including a fully mobile robot on four lets that moves elegantly and can carry 350 pounds called “Big Dog” from Boston Dynamics. (Don’t bother looking up the stock listing, I did and the company seems to be private).

Toward the conclusion of his talk Enriquez goes through a brief history of the universe and points out, once again, how brief the tenure of homo sapien is on the planet and suggests that any concept that we are the apex of evolution is “a bit arrogant.” Nonetheless, he suggests that the reboot that is taking place is evolutionary, and will result in the ability of humans to control their own evolution (homo evolutus) and that of other species (which is already happening).

Of course it can be argued that we are currently controlling other species mainly by exterminating them at an incredible rate, and that the same may happen to us. Eckhart Tolle, for one, thinks the jury is out on our ultimate survival or extinction, particularly if we fail to respect Life itself.

And that is where I think Enriquez again poses some amazing questions, but falls a bit short with the answer.

It was Enriquez’s original talk at TED on genomics that profoundly influenced me in my current belief in the existence of higher intelligence; the analogy between computer programming (devised by our intelligence) and the genome (DNA programming based on logic and not random events), when considered on the level of a scale much higher than we can imagine, indicates to me that existence is not chance.

In fact, genetic programming is part of the reboot that Enriquez describes.

But science has also found that while Enriquez may certainly be right and we are on the verge of “managing” our own evolution, that evolution itself may not be a random occurrence. Bruce Lipton, in Biology of Belief describes how microbes will change their cellular biology (evolve) to become immune to toxins and survive.

To him as well, and to a growing group of scientists, this is evidence that Life evolves intelligently and not randomly.

So is this impending ability to manage our own evolution just a lucky break for humans (our brains got really big at the right time), or something that is influenced by a higher level of understanding?

My contention would be that the ultimate outcome of homo evolutus will be determined not on the basis of how smart he/she becomes, but on how wise.

It is certainly foreseeable (one need only look at Nazi Germany) that these amazing scientific advances will be used not only for good, but to control and conquer.

It is also fascinating to note that the scientific advances Enriquez touts come at a time when parts of science (quantum physics, biology, neuroscience) are being stretched and teased to venture beyond former materialistic boundaries.

So it would seem to me that concentrating only on mechanistic evolution in terms of reengineering our species is a miss. Without the simultaneous psychological and perhaps moral evolution, our species will still be in big trouble, even if Enriquez’s “reboot” is successful.

The technologies Enriquez describes would fall under the heading of a currently popular buzzword – they are “disruptive.’

In the currently popular social media space, disruptive technologies are hailed as those that revolutionize industries and culture and lead to new opportunities and perspectives; however, the concept of disruptive as inevitably good is misguided.

The worship of disruption has taken over our culture to the point where dark and violent films are incredibly popular, and its opposite – harmonious – is viewed with scorn and derision as “boring.”

Unfortunately, it would seem that being disruptive to life as opposed to harmonious with its innate intelligence has already gotten us in a lot of trouble. Our oceans are dead, our air is polluted, and toxins are everywhere. If anything, it would appear that for the reboot of technology to succeed in revitalizing not just our economy but our civilization, it will need to be accomplished in alignment with the principles and intelligence of life, and not just for profit or the sake of materialistic science.

The ideas that come out of conferences like TED are incredibly exciting, and I find Enriquez’s work in particular thought provoking and inspiring, but if anything it points to the inescapable conclusion that for our evolution to be truly intelligent, it cannot be based only on the ideas in our human left brain, but in harmony with the higher level of intelligence at work in the 13.7 billion year history of the universe. If we continue to celebrate our disruptive capabilities we do so at our peril.

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