|Sunday, Feb 20th, 2000
Meet the new superhuman
A post-capitalist society and, potentially, a post-human society, social commentator Francis Fukuyama is now saying.
"The next era of human history could belong to the genetically-modified human being,"
That's a good soundbite. But when he wrote The End Of History, Fukuyama obviously didn't see the significance of a biological revolution brewing in the shadow of the information technology revolution.
How the nature of human society may change, and what can we do about it is going to be the subject of his next big book, he revealed.
But if post-humans and post-biological beings come about -- and some frontiersmen in science and alarmed commentators are betting that they will, sooner than later in this century -- then what will it mean to be human?
We may not be aware of it, but computers are in the process of becoming invisible and ubiquitous. As the silicon chip becomes ever more microscopic and cheaper by the year, it can eventually be embedded into every object we make.
There are 10 trillion objects manufactured in the world each year, and when every one of them carries a chip and is connected to the rest, they can become an animated swarm.
They should be all linked up, advocates Kevin Kelly, the first executive editor of Wired magazine and a founding member of the brains trust, Global Business Network, whose clients include governments and most American media conglomerates.
In his 1994 book, Out Of Control, he points out that human-made things are behaving more life-like, and life is becoming more engineered, and that a day will come when the made and the born converge.
Machines will become autonomous, adaptable, and creative. The consequence is that we will no longer be sovereign over them. They will, in effect, be out of control. But Kelly says: "I think that's a great bargain."
Another Kevin, Kevin Warwick (firstname.lastname@example.org), a professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading in England, believes that we are doomed to a future in which intelligent machines rule unless we become cyborgs, and even that is only to buy a little more time for ourselves.
Humans would be linked to machines via chip implants, to harness machine intelligence and become, in effect, superhumans.
More significantly, he envisages the day when we could have neural implants in our brains, so that we could have thought-to-thought communication without language.
The cybernetics pioneer is going to have an implant in his arm which will allow signals to be sent back and forth between himself and a computer.
If the experiment succeeds, his wife will have a similar implant. One of them will go over to the United States, and they will send real-time movement and emotion signals from person to person via the Internet.
Warwick outlines his plan to be Cyborg 1.0 in the current issue of Wired.
This implant, which will be carried out in the next 18 months -- he can't wait for it -- will be his second. In 1998, he had a chip implanted in his arm for nine days. The chip communicated via radio waves with a network of antennae in the halls and offices of his university department.
He recorded that experiment in his very accessible book on robotics, In The Mind Of The Machine (1998).
He is no foolish scientist putting his own life in harm's way, he says in the Wired article. The second implant will be the culmination of his career in computer engineering, robotics and cybernetics.
I must plead guilty to highlighting only the most outlandish part of Kevin Kelly's book. For those of you who are seized by the possibilities of the new century, and like Warwick, wake up each morning champing at the bit, Out Of Control is one of the best introductions to the networked realm.
His follow-up book, New Rules For The New Economy (1999), is a most valuable primer for everyone who has to cope with the churn that now goes on in his workplace and community. My second reading of it over the Chinese New Year holiday didn't make me any less breathless than the first time round.
For an introduction to the potential world of genetically modified human beings, you don't have to wait for Fukuyama's book. Check out The Biotech Century, Harnessing The Gene And Remaking The World by Jeremy Rifkin (1998) and Brave New Worlds, Staying Human In The Genetic Future by Bryan Appleyard (1998).
Both are what the two Kelvins would call naysayers, but they provide highly accessible and comprehensive accounts of the genetic revolution. Enjoy.
20/02/00 Meet the new superhuman