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Upgrading the world

When we think about the future we generally think about a world in which people who are identical to us in every important way enjoy better technology: laser guns, intelligent robots, and spaceships that travel at the speed of light. Yet the revolutionary potential of future technologies is to change Homo sapiens itself, including our bodies and our minds, and not merely our vehicles and weapons. The most amazing thing about the future won’t be the spaceships, but the beings flying them.

Humans are going to upgrade themselves into gods. That is, humans will acquire abilities that in the past were considered divine, such as eternal youth, mind reading, and the ability to engineer life.

Physicists define the Big Bang as a singularity. It is a point at which all the known laws of nature did not function. Time too did not exist. It is thus meaningless to say that anything existed “before” the Big Bang. We may be fast approaching a new singularity, when all the concepts that give meaning to our world— me, you, men, women, love and hate—will become irrelevant. Anything happening beyond that point is meaningless to us.


From Natural Selection to Intelligent Design

For close to four billion years, the evolution of life on earth has been governed by natural selection. There have been many fascinating twists and turns in the game of life, but its basic rules remained unchanged. Exactly the same principles of natural selection have shaped the evolution of bacteria in the primordial oceans, the evolution of dinosaurs in the Jurassic period, the evolution of archaic humans in the Stone Age, and the evolution of Galapagos finches in recent centuries.

Not all people accept this idea. Religious fundamentalists insist that intelligent design rather than natural selection has shaped life on earth. They argue that the intelligent designs of a great god sculpted the long necks of giraffes, the colorful tails of peacocks, and the jumbo brains of humans. To the best of our scientific understanding, these religious zealots are completely mistaken. The past history of life owes nothing to divine intelligence. Ironically, however, the zealots may well be right about the future. Very soon, the four-billion-year-old regime of natural selection may be overthrown, and life in the universe will increasingly be shaped by the intelligent designs of divine beings. For in the medium future, we humans are likely to turn ourselves into godlike beings, possessing divine abilities of creation by design. This will be not only the greatest revolution in thousands of years of history, but also the greatest revolution in billions of years of biology.

The replacement of natural selection by intelligent design could happen in any of three ways. The first way is through biological engineering. Bio-designers could re-engineer the shapes, abilities and desires of organisms, in order to realize some preconceived cultural idea. There is nothing new about biological engineering, per se. People have been using selective breeding, castration and other forms of bio-engineering for at least 10,000 years. But recent advances in our understanding of how organisms work, down to the cellular and genetic levels, have opened up previously unimaginable possibilities. For example, scientists can today take a gene from a jellyfish that glows in a green florescent light, and implant it in a rabbit or a monkey, which starts glowing in a green florescent light. E. coli bacteria have been genetically engineered to produce human insulin and bio-fuel. A gene extracted from an arctic fish has been inserted into potatoes, making the plants more frost resistant.

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The War Against Death

Of all mankind’s ostensibly insoluble problems, one has remained the most vexing, interesting, and important: the problem of death itself. Before the late modern era, most religions and ideologies took it for granted that death was our inevitable fate. Moreover, most faiths turned death into the main source of meaning in life. Try to imagine Islam, Christianity, or the ancient Egyptian religion in a world without death. These creeds taught people that they must come to terms with death and pin their hopes on the afterlife, rather than seek to overcome death and live forever here on earth. The best minds were busy giving meaning to death, not trying to escape it.

That is the theme of the most ancient myth to come down to us—the Gilgamesh myth of ancient Sumer. Its hero is the strongest and most capable man in the world, King Gilgamesh of Uruk, who could defeat anyone in battle. One day, Gilgamesh’s best friend, Enkidu, died. Gilgamesh sat by the body and observed it for many days, until he saw a worm dropping out of his friend’s nostril. At that moment Gilgamesh was gripped by a terrible horror, and he resolved that he himself would never die. He would somehow find a way to defeat death. Gilgamesh then undertook a journey to the end of the universe, killing lions, battling scorpion-men, and finding his way into the underworld. There he shattered the stone giants of Urshanabi and the ferryman of the river of the dead, and found Utnapishtim, the last survivor of the primordial flood. Yet Gilgamesh failed in his quest. He returned home empty-handed, as mortal as ever, but with one new piece of wisdom. When the gods created man, Gilgamesh had learned, they set death as man’s inevitable destiny, and man must learn to live with it.

Disciples of progress do not share this defeatist attitude. For men of science, death is not an inevitable destiny, but merely a technical problem. People die not because the gods decreed it, but due to various technical failures—a heart attack, cancer, an infection. And every technical problem has a technical solution. If the heart flutters, it can be stimulated by a pacemaker or replaced by a new heart. If cancer rampages, it can be killed with drugs or radiation. If bacteria proliferate, they can be subdued with antibiotics. True, at present we cannot solve all technical problems. But we are working on them. Our best minds are not wasting their time trying to give meaning to death. Instead, they are busy investigating the physiological, hormonal, and genetic systems responsible for disease and old age. They are developing new medicines, revolutionary treatments, and artificial organs that will lengthen our lives and might one day vanquish the Grim Reaper himself.

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The Last War

We are living in the most peaceful era in history. International wars have dropped to an all-time low. With few exceptions, since 1945 states no longer invade other states in order to conquer and swallow them up. Such conquests had been the bread and butter of political history since time immemorial. It was how most great empires were established, and how most rulers and populations expected things to stay. But campaigns of conquest like those of the Romans, Mongols and Ottomans cannot take place today anywhere in the world. Since 1945, no independent country recognized by the UN has been conquered and wiped off the map. Limited international wars still occur from time to time, and millions still die in wars, but wars are no longer the norm.

Many people believe that the disappearance of international war is unique to the rich democracies of Western Europe. In fact, peace reached Europe after it prevailed in other parts of the world. Thus the last serious international wars between South American countries were the Peru-Ecuador War of 1941 and the Bolivia-Paraguay War of 1932-1935. And before that there hadn’t been a serious war between South American countries since 1879–1884, with Chile on one side and Bolivia and Peru on the other.

We seldom think of the Arab world as particularly peaceful. Yet only once since the Arab countries won their independence has one of them mounted a full-scale invasion of another (the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990). There have been quite a few border clashes (e.g., Syria vs. Jordan in 1970), many armed interventions of one in the affairs of another (e.g., Syria in Lebanon), numerous civil wars (Algeria, Yemen, Libya), and an abundance of coups and revolts. Yet there have been no full-scale international wars among the Arab states except the Gulf War. Even widening the scope to include the entire Muslim world adds only one more example, the Iran-Iraq War. There was no Turkey-Iran War, Pakistan-Afghanistan War, or Indonesia-Malaysia War.

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Humans have passed their expiry date

Presently, only a tiny fraction of these new opportunities have been realized. Yet the world of 2013 is already a world in which culture is releasing itself from the shackles of biology. Our ability to engineer not merely the world around us, but above all the world inside our bodies and minds, is developing at breakneck speed. More and more spheres of activity are being shaken out of their complacent ways. Lawyers need to rethink issues of privacy and identity; governments are faced with rethinking matters of healthcare and equality; sports associations and educational institutions need to redefine fair play and achievement; pension funds and labor markets should readjust to a world in which 60 might be the new 30. They must all deal with the conundrums of bio-engineering, cyborgs, and inorganic life.

Mapping the first human genome required 15 years and $3 billion. Today you can map a person’s DNA within a few weeks and at the cost of a few hundred dollars. The era of personalized medicine —medicine that matches treatment to DNA – has begun. The family doctor could soon tell you with greater certainty that you face high risks of liver cancer, whereas you needn’t worry too much about heart attacks. She could determine that a popular medication that helps 92 percent of people is useless to you, and you should instead take another pill, fatal to many people but just right for you. The road to near-perfect medicine stands before us.

However, with improvements in medical knowledge will come new ethical conundrums. Ethicists and legal experts are already wrestling with the thorny issue of privacy as it relates to DNA. Would insurance companies be entitled to ask for our DNA scans and to raise premiums if they discover a genetic tendency to reckless behavior? Would we be required to fax our DNA, rather than our CV, to potential employers? Could an employer favor a candidate because his DNA looks better? Or could we sue in such cases for “genetic discrimination?” Could a company that develops a new creature or a new organ register a patent on its DNA sequences? It is obvious that one can own a particular chicken, but can one own an entire species?

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When ethics become outdated

Like all our other senses, our sense of justice, too, has ancient evolutionary roots. Human morality was shaped in the course of millions of years of evolution, adapted to dealing with the social and ethical dilemmas that cropped up in the lives of small hunter-gatherer bands.

Is the hunter who brought down the mammoth with his own hands entitled to a larger portion of its meat? Does the fact that I am stronger than you allow me to take all the mushrooms you gathered so laboriously? If I know that one of the women in the group is plotting to kill me, is it ok to act preemptively and cut her throat in the dark of night?

On the face of things, not much has changed since we left the savanna for the urban jungle. One might think that the questions we face today—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, social discrimination, the destruction of the Forests—are fundamentally the same. But that is an illusion. The truth is that from the standpoint of morality, like many other standpoints, we are hardly adapted to the world in which we live.

It’s the numbers that are to blame. The foragers’ sense of justice was structured to cope with dilemmas of small numbers. Dilemmas relating to the lives of a few dozen people in an area of a few dozen square kilometers across a few decades. When we try to comprehend relations between millions of people in entire continents across whole generations, our morality is overwhelmed.

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