Nanotech Self-Assemblers. Genetically Engineered Offspring. Full Immersion Virtual Reality. Robots That Can Think.
It’s easy to dismiss many of these “future technologies” as the stuff of science fiction, existing only in the ‘advanced’ societies we’ve seen rendered in the movies. But Ray Kurzweil, famous futurist and author of “The Singularity Is Near,” believes we are at a precipice of a technological revolution where nanotechnology, information technology, and artificial intellegience will, over the next few decades, develop at such a fast rate that the human race will soon be faced with a fundamentally restructured way of living. He declares that we are entering into “an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today–the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity.
Kurzweil takes an extreme view, and whether or not this type of “singularity” will occur remains to be seen; however, it is certain that technology will continue to advance. And yet, we aren’t going to wake up one morning and suddenly live in a transformed society. Kurzweil concedes, “It’s not like we’re going to go along and nothing’s going to happen and then suddenly we’re going to take this huge leap to super intelligent machines. We’re gonna get from here to there through thousands of little steps.”
So what steps are being taken right now, and to what sort of future? How do we examine these technologies in a morally principled way as they are developing, so that we can influence the direction they ultimately go in?
Bill Joy, Sun Microsystems co-founder and author of the essay, “Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us,” explains the importance of evaluating these ethical issues while these technologies are in development, and before they become integrated into society. After they are released into society, it becomes nearly impossible to backtrack:
“Ideas can’t be put back in a box…once they are out, they are out.” He says. “Churchill remarked, in a famous left-handed compliment, that the American people and their leaders “invariably do the right thing, after they have examined every other alternative.” In this case, however, we must act more presciently, as to do the right thing only at last may be to lose the chance to do it all…”
“The experience of the atomic scientists clearly show the need to take personal responsibility, the danger that things will move too fast, and the way in which a process can take on a life of its own. We can, as they did, create insurmountable problems in almost no time flat. We must do more thinking up front if we are not to be similarly surprised and shocked by the consequences of our inventions.”
How can we best assess the ethical issues posed by nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology by taking the “personal responsibility” that Joy speaks of? Are there certain technologies that we shouldn’t pursue, and if so, why? We will be exploring the future of technology – and what we can do to handle it responsibly and ethically—here at The Technological Citizen.
Watch an interview with Ray Kurzweil below:
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