Science & Technology

What's the purpose of life?

Nanotechnology might provide the answer.


Two different types of cutting-edge technology are promising (or threatening, as the fearful might see it) to radically change human abilities and capacities—and even our identities. One – already the subject of plenty of political maneuvering—is the biotechnological revolution. The other, not yet of major political significance, is nanotechnology—the ability to manipulate matter precisely on the atomic level.

The Foresight Institute, an organization dedicated to nanotech, sponsored a meeting in Palo Alto over the weekend featuring around 100 of the industry's leading doers and speculators. Attendees heard from Zyvex's Ralph Merkle, inventor Ray Kurzweil, futurist author Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation and Long Bets Foundation, and Neil Jacobstein of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, among others.

The meeting featured a colorful debate on the relative importance of nanotech and biotech between Ray Kurzweil and Gregory Stock. Kurzweil is an inventor of note and the author of a number of books, including The Age of Spiritual Machines. Stock is the director of the program on medicine, technology, and society at UCLA, and author, most recently, of Redesigning Humans. Billed as the "Debate of the Decade: 'BioFuture or MachineFuture?'" their discussion ranged from gee-whiz gadgetry to the question that bedevils most human beings: "What is the purpose of life?"

Stock began by challenging Kurzweil's brisk timetable for the cyborgization of humanity—which Kurzweil sees happening within a few decades. "I know some of you are eagerly anticipating transmogrification into some sort of cyborg chipheads," said Stock. "I know biological enhancement sounds so stodgy compared to some of the things talked about by Ray. But I don't think that a migration to a non-organic substrate is going to happen any time soon."

Stock foresees instead that rapid advances in biological research will soon change how we manage our emotions, how we have children, and how long we live. New psychoactive drugs will enable us to short-circuit the emotional pathways that have evolved to reward behaviors that increase our chances of surviving to reproduce. These new side-effect-free drugs will allow us to feel really happy and fulfilled all the time. "Are you going to be able to resist that?" Stock wonders.

"I know that many of you are thinking, 'why talk about biology when we're going to achieve personal immortality by joining a superconsciousness that is nonbiological?'" noted Stock. He admitted that he found that vision "very seductive, but even with exponential advances in technology, we are still not going to become cyborgs." Why not?

Because trying to meld biology and machinery is incredibly complex. So for the next few decades, until all the bugs in nano are worked out, biotech will be the technology that will boost life expectancy and expand our physical capacities. Given the relatively primitive state of electromechanical technology, "why would we bother to implant computers?" asked Stock. "I'm not going to have brain surgery in order to install the moral equivalent of an electronic toaster."

Kurzweil thinks the future will be both biotech and nanotech. The first two decades of the 21st century will be the golden age of biotechnology, featuring tissue engineering, the immortalization of cells and organs using telomeres, rational drug design, simulations replacing animal testing, and the repair of genetic defects. The third and fourth decades will be the golden age of bionanotechnology, in which biology and nanotechnology will meld. "Nanotech is behind biotech, but consider the law of accelerating returns. We will make progress equivalent to that of the whole 20th century in the next 15 years," Kurzweil predicts. "Progress in the 21st century will be equivalent to 20,000 years of progress at today's rate of progress."

By 2030, electronics will utilize molecule-size circuits and be organized in three dimensions instead of the two dimensions used today. Also by 2030, nano-electromechanical systems combining computational power and the ability to manipulate matter at the molecular level will be common. The accelerating rate of progress will make human-level intelligence available in a $1,000 computer by 2029. Humans will incorporate nano-scale electromechanical devices in their bodies because "we are not going to be able to expand our biological abilities. There are profound limitations on biology, but nanotechnology is infinitely expandable." Kurzweil foresees the replacement of the nuclei of cells with nanotech structures that contain genomic information and can make the proper proteins. (Of course, cell nuclei are already, in a sense, bionanotech devices.)

Kurzweil also outlined his vision of the increasingly intimate and gradual inclusion of machines in the human body. He suggested that people's notions of machines have to be revised – we will grow to see them not as merely cold, inflexible, and brittle gadgets, but as helpful and necessary devices, as soft and subtle as human tissues. Kurzweil is convinced that a person's computationally powerful nonbiological components will eventually overwhelm his biological remnants. Perhaps a person's biology would then become simply superfluous.

Kurzweil also suggested that nanotechnology will succeed because it is not controversial. He pointed out that biotech is already politically and ethically controversial. Kurzweil asked, "We're already putting computers in people's brains and are there any people protesting against them? Is there any controversy over that?"

The dialogue took a philosophical, even theological, turn. Stock said, "If your goal is to feel good, to feel happy, new biotech drugs without side effects will be able to hijack neural circuits and mimic those feelings."

"I don't think that the purpose of human life is just to feel good," Kurzweil responded. "Creating knowledge, appreciating a jazz riff, a good conversation—they are really the most profound and satisfactory experiences. It really comes down to, what is the purpose of life? Is it to create knowledge and new patterns of information?"

Stock wondered, "What is the purpose of life when nonbiological intelligences of the sort you're talking about are more creative than we are?" Kurzweil answered, "As we become more intimate with our machines, biology does become trivial. The nonbiological part will accelerate and become a million trillion times more powerful than biology. Because it is the nature of the nonbiological intelligence to grow exponentially, it will eventually dominate. This whole period of transhumanism is just an interim period." Although humans as such may disappear in the nanotechnological future, that which will endure beyond our biology will be an expression of our civilization, Kurzweil asserted.

Stock noted, "There is this strange urge in us to transcend our biology. If you can't buy Christianity, there is a strong desire to create those same visions of heaven and transcendence through our technologies." Kurzweil admitted that the technological future he projects has similarities to the Christian vision of heaven.

"Isn't there something better than people sinking into being chemically inspired couch potatoes and letting the machines get on with the future?" asked an audience member. Kurzweil responded that there are always dead ends, and new technologies will create new dead ends. But he believes that despite the temptation to become nanotechnological couch potatoes, many humans will continue to expand their horizons.

Asked if he was worried about rising hostility to technology, Kurzweil noted that the luddite movement has always been there, but that it had not appreciably slowed down technological progress. "All of these ethical concerns are focused on biology. You don't see demonstrations against computer technologies," he declared.

Kurzweil may be declaring the "all clear" on nanotech prematurely. After the debate, Leon Fuerth, Al Gore's former national security advisor, led a session to discuss its policy implications. Fuerth quickly punctured Kurzweil's complacent claim that there is no political and ethical controversy over nanotechnology.

"These guys talking here act as though the government is not part of their lives. They may wish it weren't, but it is," said Fuerth. "As we approach the issues they debated here today, they had better believe that those issues will be debated by the whole country. The majority of Americans will not simply sit still while some elite strips off their personalities and uploads themselves into their cyberspace paradise. They will have something to say about that. There will be a vehement debate about that in this country."

Indeed, there are activist groups like the Funders Group on the Emerging Technologies and the ETC Group mobilizing against nanotechnology. Fuerth made it clear that the government will want to meddle in the coming nanotech revolution. The future is bright, either biotech or nanotech, but as always it is imperiled by those who would strangle it in its crib.