An inflection point like no other is about to unfold in the evolution of humankind, two worlds are about to collide in a way that will fundamentally change how life itself functions; and we are both the reason as well as the means by which this will come into being. Most of life is confined within the realm of biology, but we seem to have created a parallel world of ever-growing influence that culminated in technology. And there is an imminent collision between these two worlds, technology and biology are about to intertwine and this is something we need to understand in order to guide the situation towards the best possible outcome.
On the one hand, we have nature which created one of the most complex and well-functioning systems. Biological life seems to be an infinite generator of variation that works in perpetuity and all conditions. On the other hand, we have mankind’s fascinating capacity of distilling knowledge and understanding into technology. And because building knowledge is exactly like the blockchain, each new piece rests on all the others before it, better and better technology is created as a result.
I propose a journey through these two worlds and see where they intersect.
The biological world
Biological life is a highly versatile system than creates a dynamic equilibrium between all life forms and the environment. To my mind, there are two main ways in which life functions, one is evolution – the tendency of creating new biological mechanisms and the other is adaptation – the tendency of fine-tuning organism to best fit their environment.
All life on this planet is derived from single-cell organisms which were able to merge with other single cells and create multicellular life. With time, a division of labor started to occurred and now cells within the same organism served different functions, this leads the way to organs being created and later systems of organs. So, life seems to have an intrinsic drive of creating increasingly complex structures. One other thing life does is to use different biological mechanisms to populate all kinds of environments, that is why we have terrestrial, subterrestrial, marine, airborne and other less evident forms of life. The variety is truly breathtaking, not even two individuals of the same species are totally alike and this is the secret of how life is so adaptable.
Because the environment is also in constant change, life needs to adapt to these changes and the way it does it is by creating variations within the same species. Different variations will create different results, thus some individuals will emerge better suited to deal with their environment and will have more chances of successfully mating and passing on the traits which made them better suited, this is how life adapts and this is a never-ending process.
To exemplify the versatility of adaptations let’s see what exotic life forms we have on earth. We have Loriciferans which are not dependant on oxygen and thrive in a poisonous sulphides environment, you can read more here. We also have Tardigrades which can survive in space and some types of radiation. And one of the most fascinating new adaptations of life is linked to an imbalance created by us humans, plastic eating bacteria have been found and researched are already working at making it more efficient.
The bottom line is simple, life is unimaginably complex and comes with a versatility that can create species which thrive in all sorts of conditions and environments. But, although the end result is extremely efficient, the process by which this is done is not very pleasant at an individual level. Because some individuals of the species will not be so well adapted to the environment we have survival of the fittest which leaves a lot of individuals behind and this is perfectly fine in natural law, but humans might have a different point of view in the near future.
The technological world
Let’s begin with trying to understand what technology fundamentally is. My first instinct when trying to define technology was something electrical, but then I understood that an ax is also a piece of technology and has nothing to do with electricity. After thinking about it some time and seeking to boil it down to the most basic of views I concluded that technology is human understanding and ingenuity applied towards the facilitation of a certain goal. And looking at the evolution of humankind through this definition there are a lot of technologically induced inflection points in our development.
One of the first leaps we had as human beings was with the domestication of fire, among many other uses this gave us the possibility to cook food which is basically equivalent to the outsourcing digestion. Cooking the food we eat not only opens us up to larger dietary diversity, but also influences the energy needed for a human to complete digestion, and there are researchers who argue this freed up additional energy which when to the development of cognition. So, in a sense, this event could be seen as an instance when technology influenced biology in our favor, but in a natural way.
As stated in the above-mentioned definition, technology is based on understanding and because each new piece of understanding is built on the one before it, technology also follows this path. Let’s see how this applies to one of our most distinguishable traits – communication. It seems that humankind has an intrinsic tendency towards communication and this was done in different ways over our history. I would argue that the first major innovation in communication was language, this allowed for much more complex collaboration between humans. The next innovation in this field was the written word which could keep a detailed account of knowledge, continued with the later democratization of knowledge given by the large-scale output of the printing press. And the last major innovation in communication is our host, the internet. All these technologies were designed to do the same thing, to facilitate communication and each brings a new layer which is built upon the previous one.
One other thing we need to understand when it comes to technology is its speed of development which in many cases is exponential. There are a number of technologies which double their performance every 12 to 24 months, this means they become much better and cheaper with each cycle. The twist with exponential growth is to understand that each doubling rests upon the number before it, so if we begin with 1 we then have 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048… and with 30 such doublings, we reach roughly a billion which is a one followed by nine zeros.
The book ”Exponential Organization” – written by Salim Ismail, Yuri van Geest, and Michael Malone, compiled a list of price decreases for some of these technologies. These are figures compiled until 2014.
- drones: cost $100,000 in 2007 to $700 in 2013, 142 times price decrease in 6 years
- solar energy: $30 per kWh in 1984 to $0.16 per kWh in 2014, 200 times price decrease in 20 years
- full body medical scan: $10,000 in 2000 to $500 in 2014, 20 times price decrease in 14 years
- 3D LIDAR mapping sensor (used for autonomous cars): $20,000 in 2009 to $79 in 2014, 250 times price decrease in 5 years
- DNA sequencing: $10 million in 2007 to $1,000 in 2014, 10.000 times price decrease in 7 years
And from this whirlpool of innovation and exponential growth, there are two technological realities which can fundamentally impact life and open a never before imagined real of possibilities.
Technologically driven biology
Genetic engineering is not a new subject but is one of those technologies which benefit from an exponential growth cycle, mainly due to new discoveries in the field. CRISPR/cas9 is a technology discovered in 2005 which is based on a natural occurrence of a bacteria that can alter their own genetic code. Many in this field explain the absolute ease of using this technology by comparing it to the cut and paste functions on a computer.
Although we are not there yet, applying exponential growth logic we can safely assume we are on the road to being able of highly configuring the building blocks of life. I will not go into the ethical implications of this near-certain reality, because I believe this is not something that can be stopped. The decentralization of technology and innovation across the world makes it impossible to regulate and enforce a no human gene-editing policy.
Furthermore, mankind recently underwent a new collective effort. Back in 1990 the Human Genome Project was initiated and after 13 years we had a complete map of the genes in our DNA, but this was only the read part of it. In 2016 The Genome Project – Write came into being, which is “an international research project led by a multi-disciplinary group of scientific leaders who will oversee a reduction in the costs of engineering and testing large genomes in cell lines more than 1,000-fold within ten years.”
The main focus of this project: “GP-write will include whole genome engineering of human cell lines and other organisms of agricultural and public health significance. Thus, the Human Genome Project-write (HGP-write) will be a critical core activity within GP-write focused on synthesizing human genomes in whole or in part.”
So, humankind seems to have both the technology as well as the collaborative drive needed to undergo this very bold project, and the possibilities are equally exciting and terrifying.
This collision of technology and biology does not only give us the possibility of editing sickness out of our genetic code and create healthy babies but will bring into discussion the notion of augmented humans. And if this gene editing will be used to give people more cognitive capacity or enhanced physical qualities we can safely assume we underwent a technologically enabled evolution which created a new species of humans.
Biologically driven technology
If genetic engineering is an instance of technologically driven biology, a brain-machine interface is somehow the opposite because it is a biologically driven technology. With the first we see technology being used to modify biology, but with the lather we see technology complementing biology. A brain-machine interface would literally be a way of controlling a computer with your thoughts and being able to access the internet directly, without a large limitation of data input and output as per now.
And if you think this is something very far away, there is already proof that this can be a very near reality. Researchers at the Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan have developed an ever-improving taught to text technology, at the beginning of this year they had a “90 percent success rate when trying to recognize numbers from zero to nine and a 61 percent rate for single syllables in Japanese”. The researchers also suggested that within five years they could imagine a device linked with a smartphone app that would operate as a though to text interface, more about this here.
Elon Musk is also working on a brain-machine interface with his project Neuralink, and has the stated mission of “developing ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers.”
Let’s undergo a though exercise and imagine how would such a machine work. Firstly let’s see what a computer needs to function and connect to the internet; basically, it needs processing and storage for operating and a way of communicating with the user in the form of inputs like a mouse, keypad, touchscreen or voice and an output which is most commonly a display and sometimes speakers. I would argue that the human brain intrinsically has all these elements and with the right technology like nanobots, the biological structure of the brain can be piggybacked and linked directly to the internet. The brain already does processing and storage very well, with a though reading interface we could resolve the input side and the parts of the brain which handle vision and hearing can be used directly to project the output information from the internet.
In this context of hyperconnectivity we also need to bring Artificial Intelligence into the discussion; because it’s not that far-fetched to imagine that as we can now rent processing and storage capacity in the cloud we could also extend our intelligence into the digital. This concept of creating a digital extension of the biological brain is called an exocortex, which would literally mean outsourcing processing and storage capacity to the digital realm. The last time we got an addition to the brain, the neocortex gave us the capability of developing language and culture; it’s impossible to imagine what would an exocortex bring, but of this comes to pass it would also be safe to say that a new species would be born.
Social context, risks and safeguards
Even now we have a lot of different nuance of technological culture because we have authoritarian regimes, very liberal ones and almost everything in between. We can safely assume there will be many types of relating to the two above mentioned technological probabilities. And it would be naive of us to think there are no intentions of using these technologies for not so good purposes. This level of technological know-how can create the closest thing possible to both what we imagine paradise as being as well as hell; and we will most probably see nuances of the two throughout the world.
If we think that power is now centralized; I would not like to imagine a world in which the elite are biologically augmented and digitally complemented, this would open the door to the creation of a new dominant species which could exert never before imagined control and this is something we need to acknowledge and prepare for. One of the ways we can safeguard against such a dystopian future would be by making sure that access to these technologies is fully democratized and available to all, this way we can prevent any particular group of interest from getting the upper hand.
In order to maximize the chances of equal access to happen, an open source, fully transparent global effort needs to coagulate. A decentralized and distributed approach would create a better performing space in which innovations can occur, thus being able to compete with private interests. I would argue that a collaborative global effort would produce better technology than teams with limitations and this would need to be one of the main safeguards.
We are entering an era in which morals start playing a decisive role on how technology progresses and the collision of technology with biology leaves room for such a debate. We need to realize the urgency of this matter and start this global discussion as soon and as coherent as possible. We need to figure out what really matters for us as a collective and draw some line that should be crossed with the utmost attention. And we also need to create a culture in which technology is used and designed for the betterment of humankind, whichever form it will take in the future.