Regarding the material about monkey genes — yes, it’s not uncommon to read reports of new ways of monkeying with the brain (no pun intended), and there is plenty of reason to worry about this stuff, not so much because employers might force their employees to take gene treatments to turn them into workaholics (which I think is unlikely), as because increased understanding of the brain leads to solutions that are, at least, insulting to human dignity. See ISAIF, paragraphs 143-45, 149-156.
Regarding Ray Kurzweil’s “Promise and Peril,” you write, “I’m not sure which disturb me more his ‘promises’ or his ‘perils’.” I feel the same way. To me they are all just perils. I’m skeptical about Kurzweil’s predictions, though. I’ll bet that a lot of them will turn out to be just pie in the sky. In the past there have been too many confident predictions about the future of technology that have not been fulfilled. It’s certainly not that I would want to downplay the power or the danger of technology. However, I do question Kurzweil’s ability to predict the future. I’ll be very surprised if everything that he predicts actually materializes, but I won’t be a bit surprised if a lot of scary stuff happens that neither Kurzweil nor anyone else can now anticipate.
To address a few specific points from Kurzweil’s article:
He asks: “Should we tell the millions of people afflicted with cancer and other devastating conditions that we are canceling the development of all bioengineered treatments because there is a risk that these same technologies may someday be used for malevolent purposes?” Kurzweil fails to note that cancer results largely from the modern way of life (see my letter of 3/17/05). and the same is true of many other “devastating conditions,” e.g., AIDS, which, assuming that it occurred at all, would probably have remained localized if it had not been for modern transportation facilities, which spread the disease everywhere. In any case, what is at stake now are the most fundamental aspects of the fate of the whole world. It would be senseless to risk a disastrous outcome in order to prolong artificially the lives of people suffering from “devastating conditions.”
Throughout his essay Kurzweil romanticizes the technological way of life, while he paints a misleading and grim picture of preindustrial life. In my letter of 11/23/04, I pointed out some reasons for considering primitive life better than modern life. To address specifically Kurzweil’s point about life-expectancy — he mentions an expectancy of 35 years for preindustrial Swedish females and 33 for males. Let’s split the difference and make it 34 years overall. Assuming this figure is correct, it is misleading, because it gives the impression that few people lived beyond their mid-30s. I’ve more than once read statements by demographers to the effect that the low life-expectancies of preindustrial times largely reflected the high rate of infant and early-childhood mortality. Once the vulnerable first few years were past, people’s lives were not so very much shorter than they are today. I’m depending on memory here and can’t cite my sources. But information for which I can cite sources is consistent with what I’ve just said. According to Rousseau, in the mid-18th-century France 50% of children died before reaching the age of eight. Since mortality must have been highest in the earliest years, let’s suppose that the average age of these children at death was 3 years. Assuming that this is applicable to Sweden accepting the above figure of 34 years for average age at death, and setting A = average age at death of all people who survived beyond the age of eight, we have 0.5 x 3 + 0.5 x A = 34. Solving for A gives an average age at death of 65 for those who survived beyond the age of eight. This of course is only a crude estimate, and I’m not suggesting that the high child mortality rate should be discounted as a triviality, but we do see here how misleading it is to cite the 34-year life-expectancy without further explanation. It’s worth noting that about 8% of a population of Kalahari Bushmen (hunter-gatherers) was said to consist of persons from 60 to more than 80 years old. My recollection is that according to the 1970 census, 10% of the American population was then aged 65 or older. This figure has stuck in my mind because I read it not long after reading the foregoing figure for the Bushmen.
Kurzweil states not only that technological progress proceed exponentially but that biological evolution has always done so. This statement is almost meaningless. To say that something grows exponentially means that it follows a curve of the form: y equals e to the ax power, where “a” is a constant. So, before you can meaningfully say that a thing grows exponentially, you have to have a quantitative measure of that thing. Where is Kurzweil’s quantitative measure of evolutionary progress? How would he assign numerical values to fishes, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, etc., that would show the rate of evolution in quantitative terms?
It’s easy to establish quantitative measures of progress in specific aspects of technology. E.g., one can speak of the number of operations that a computer performs in one second. But on what quantitative measure does Kurzweil rely in stating that overall technological progress has been “exponential” in some vague subjective sense, at least for the last few centuries. A responsible commentator might say just that, or he might say that as measured by some specified numerical index progress has been exponential. But Kurzweil just says flatly and without qualification: “Exponential growth is a feature of any evolutionary process…” This kind of overconfidence is apparent also in other parts of the article, and it reinforces my suspicion (which I mentioned in an earlier letter) that Kurzweil is more of a showman than a serious thinker.
Again, I myself believe that technology is carrying us forward at an accelerating and extremely dangerous rate; on that point I fully agree with Kurzweil. But I question whether he is a responsible, balanced, and reliable commentator.
Kurzweil admits that we can’t “absolutely ensure” the survival of human ethics and values, but he does seem to believe we can do a lot to promote their survival. And throughout his article generally he shows his belief that humans can to a significant degree control the path that technological progress will take. I maintain that he is dead wrong. History shows the futility of human efforts to guide the development of societies, and, given that the pace of change — as Kurzweil himself says — will keep accelerating indefinitely, the futility of such efforts in the future will be even more certain. So Kurzweil’s ideas for limiting the dangerous aspects of technological progress are completely unrealistic. Relevant here are my remarks about “natural selection” (see my letter of 10/12/04). For example, “human values” in the long run will survive only if they are the “fittest” values in terms of natural selection. And it is highly unlikely that they will continue to be the fittest values in the world of the future, which will be utterly unlike the world that has existed before.
What Kurzweil says about “distributed technologies” makes me uneasy. He may be right in claiming that the system will tend toward the development of decentralized facilities, thus decreasing its dependence on centralized facilities such as power-plants, oil refineries, and so forth. The more decentralized the system becomes, the more difficult it will be to eliminate it. This is one reason why I oppose decentralization.
A question has to be raised about the people who are promoting all this mad technological growth — those who do the research and those who provide the funds for research. Are they criminals? Should they be punished?
Concerning the recent terrorist action in Britain: Quite apart from any humanitarian considerations, the radical Islamics’ approach seem senseless. They take a hostile stance toward whole nations, such as the U.S. or Britain, and they indiscriminately kill ordinary citizens of those countries. In doing so they only strengthen the countries in question, because they provide the politicians with what they most need: a feared external enemy to unite the people behind their leaders. The Islamics seem to have forgotten the principle of “divide and conquer”: Their best policy would have been to profess friendship for the American, British, etc. people and limit their expressed hostility to the elite groups of those countries, while portraying the ordinary people as victims or dupes of their leaders. (Notice that this is the position that the U.S. usually adopts toward hostile countries.)
So the terrorists’ acts of mass slaughter seem stupid. But there may be an explanation other than stupidity for their actions: The radical Islamic leaders may be less interested in the effect that the bombings have on the U.S. or the U.K. than in their effect within the Islamic world. The leaders’ main goal may be to build a strong and fanatical Islamic movement, and for this purpose they may feel that spectacular acts of mass destruction are more effective than assassinations of single individuals, however important the latter may be. I’ve found some support for this hypothesis:
“[A] radical remake of the faith is indeed the underlying intention of bin Laden and his followers. Attacking America and its allies is merely a tactic, intended to provoke a backlash strong enough to alert Muslims to the supposed truth of their predicament, and so rally them to purge their faith of all that is alien to its essence. Promoting a clash of civilizations is merely stage one. The more difficult part, as the radicals see it, is convincing fellow Muslims to reject the modern world absolutely (including such aberrations as democracy), topple their own insidiously secularizing quisling governments, and return to the pure path.”