Sunday, Feb 20th, 2000
Life section

Meet the new superhuman

Biotech Revolution

The next time someone says he's got a chip on his shoulder, sidle up for a closer look; he may just be a cyborg. It's all part of the post-human age

do we get at the end of history?

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,"
he told my colleague Chua Mui Hoong in an interview on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos (see Sunday Review, Page 41).

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.

"My thesis about the end of human history pre-supposed a human society. What no one could have predicted is that the nature of human society itself may change," he said.

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.

At his talk at the Nanyang Technological University last week, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew made the observation that human society will change, but not human nature.

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?

Besides genetically modified human beings, we may also get cyborgs (half men-half machines), and machines which are far more intelligent than we are, and whose power is increased exponentially by their being fully networked.

Washing machines, each with one or more chips embedded in them, for example, are still dumb. But when millions of them are connected, they become a network whose intelligence can be far larger than the sum of its dim parts.

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.

Already, there are more than 6 billion non-computer chips working away ceaselessly in our environment. By 2005, there will be 10 billion.

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 (, 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.

Archive 1

03/12/00 Nice work if you can get it

19/11/00 Simple emotions stalls paperless future

04/11/00 A club of pretencious class

21/10/00 Canby's passion for cinema

16/09/00 Clint still a draw at 70

09/09/00 The inspiring Keppel Men

09/07/00 Time and love wait for no man

25/06/00 Seizing opportunity in old-economy biz

11/06/00 Bad news to have more papers?

14/05/00 When my hostesses didn't show up...

30/04/00 Bellow's betrayal -- or act of friendship?

16/04/00 Alone, you don't get to grow up

02/04/00 New Economy

19/03/00 The Good Life

06/03/00 Time for creative destruction

20/02/00 Meet the new superhuman

30/01/00 OK, I don't have to be rich

16/01/00 An intimation of timelessness

02/01/00 Let's not forget to meet F2F