Humankind has already crossed the threshold of what has been described as the ‘technoscientific era’. In The Third Industrial Revolution; How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World (2011), author Jeremy Rifkin, argued that fundamental economic change depends on three types of technological advances: the way we manage the movement of goods or people, the way we communicate and manage information, and the way we utilize and manage energy consumption in our economies. Effective since 1980s the 3IR (aka Digital Revolution) has been transformative and ended up delivering us automated vehicles, 5G networks, the Internet of Things and renewable energy. Great!
Five years later, in The Fourth Industrial Revolution (2016), Klaus Schwab, the founder of World Economic Forum, posited we are in the midst of 4IR that is quite different from the previous three – all characterized by advances in technology. To him the 4IR is underpinned not only by technology but it is also imbued by advances in communication and connectivity: i.e. due to a fusion of technologies the lines between physical, digital and biological spheres have become blurred. The technologies developed therein were deployed to connect billions of people on the internet, significantly improved the efficiency of business entities, and even helped protect the environment due to man-made climate change.
There is little doubt that we are living in an exciting time in human history but modern humans have reached a critical juncture. Cutting edge technologies continue to emerge from breakthroughs in the field of genetic engineering, molecular biology (biotechnology), artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, quantum computing, 3D printing, nanotechnology and neurotechnology. Some scientists also believe in a few decades the frontiers of science will be pushed even further to identify the so-called dark matter of the Universe, provide fuller explanation for how life originated on Earth, and even explain if there is a physical basis for consciousness during changes in our mood and thought processes.
The pace of advances in science and technology over the last fifty years, in particular, has transformed human lives in ways unimaginable in our parents’ generation. Who would have thought of the utility of today’s mobile phones, when only a few decades ago, the cell phone in Maxwell Smart’s shoes was an oddity, meant to provide us comic relief? Our generation can hardly complain but be thankful for all the devices, and much more, from the brilliant minds that continue to enthral us with scientific wizardry.
The late English physicist and thinker, Professor Stephen Hawkins, suffered from motor neuron disease and died in March 2018. He was best known for his book A Brief History of Time (1988). As Sarah Marsh pointed out in The Guardian of 14 October 2018, he caused controversy in a series of essays and articles (published posthumously) by entertaining the possibility that a new race of superhumans – with enhanced memory, disease resistance, improved intelligence and longevity – could be created by the wealthy elites choosing to edit their own and their children’s DNA. She quotes Hawkins as saying that through genetic engineering:
“Once such superhumans appear, there will be significant political problems with unimproved humans, who won’t be able to compete. Presumably, they will die out, or become unimportant. Instead, there will be a race of self-designing beings who are improving at an ever-increasing rate [emphasis added].”
All thanks to a DNA-editing technique, known as Crispr-Cas9 or simply Crispr, invented seven years ago. It allows scientists to modify harmful genes or add new ones. Scientists can precisely target and edit pieces of the genome. More technically, Crispr is a guide molecule made of RNA that enables a specific site of interest on the DNA double helix to be targeted. The RNA molecule is attached to Cas9, a bacterial enzyme that works as a pair of “molecular scissors” to cut the DNA at the precise point where it is required. Simply put, it allows scientists to cut, paste and delete single letters of our genetic code – to borrow from Sarah Marsh again.
In 2015, Hawkins had also pointed out that humanity could be destroyed by artificial intelligence, human aggression and alien life if it exists. So, his suggestion, in 2018, that laws should be passed against genetic engineering with humans wasn’t surprising. However, then, he had correctly presaged that some scientists (for myriad reasons) would not be able to resist the temptation to improve the human condition, and in the process, may well end up destroying humanity as we know it. Was he overstating it?
Well, lo and behold, by 23 December 2018, came the announcement that a Chinese scientist, Dr He Jiankui, had bypassed everyone and in a mad rush to use the gene-editing technique, Crispr, created the ‘world’s first genetically modified babies’ (twins). In the midst of a storm of protests that erupted due to the perceived dangers, Dr He Jiankui argued he was motivated by ‘good intentions’ to assist families who struggled to cope with congenital or genetic diseases. Well, the proverbial road to Hell is also paved with good intentions. But let’s examine the wider issues.
In a perverse juxtaposition of new ideas, according to a report by Stephen Greenblatt in The Guardian, published also on 23 December 2018, the entrepreneur extraordinaire Elon Musk announced that one of his companies, Neuralink, had its own plans to ‘save humanity’ – if indeed it was needed – by developing a hard drive intended to be implanted in the human brain. Musk is passionate about the new field of Neurotechnology. He aims to create a unique type of man-machine interface by wiring a chip into a human skull, giving an individual ‘digital intelligence’ that will significantly enhance his natural or ‘biological intelligence’. According to Musk, without this ‘technology and the chip human species is doomed.’ The proposed ‘electrode-to-neuron interface at a micro level’, can potentially cure some debilitating human afflictions such as Alzheimer’s (dementia) and paralysis.
But, Greenblatt, who is the Cogan university professor of the humanities at Harvard University, fittingly argued there is a huge difference between attempting to repair spinal cord injuries or dementia by implanting electrodes in the brain and implanting an intelligence-enhancing AI chip expressly to modify human intelligence levels, as is Neuralink’s ultimate aim. The former restores an injured human to full mobility; the later alters the very nature of a human as an evolved being over the millennia. The human beings, as they presently exist, are essentially the same regardless of where they live.
Ever an original thinker, Musk envisages a not-too-distant future ‘dominated by artificial intelligence, robotics and algorithms’ where human lives will become restricted. To him if humans survive at all on Earth, they will end up inhabiting a few ‘protected zones’, akin to the present situation of the great apes – chimpanzees and mountain gorillas – who struggle to survive in ever-diminishing areas allocated to these threatened species by humans. Musk also produces electric cars (Tesla), is committed to solar energy and wants to colonise Mars to save some people (presumably the rich or improved humans) in the event of a nuclear Armageddon.
Depending on one’s point of view, and the feel-good stories aside, soon humanity will be forced to make choices. In seeking to abandon ‘natural selection’, the evolutionary process that created us (with apologies to the creationists) in favour of self-managed evolution via what sociobiologists refer to as ‘violation selection’ to redesign, refurbish and reconstitute our biology, physiology, and even our human nature, it seems we are opening up a Pandora’s Box without fully comprehending the longer term consequences of such an (mis)adventure.
Many questions come to mind and remain unanswered: Who will own these exciting breakthroughs in genetic engineering? Will they hasten our inexorable march towards Transhumanism and Singularity? Is humanity as a whole ready to wilfully defenestrate its objective identity and/or the totality of its (contested) meaning of existence only to live longer, be healthier and smarter or to acquire some special skills? Is there a danger in giving scientists untrammelled power to make such onerous decisions affecting the entire human race? Who should be responsible for decisions that will redefine our sense of self, dignity, agency and freedom as we know them? Have scientists strayed away too far from what ought to be their highly controlled or regulated experimentation regime to produce only universally-sanctioned and desired outcomes for the benefit of all humans? Is it scientific narcissism that compels some to ‘play God’? Will unimproved humans be forced to forfeit all their existing rights and have no say at all? Does a renewed final solution await them? Somehow, I think, we will never find answers to all these questions.
Sociobiologists point out that another form of ‘volitional evolution’ is occurring which indirectly impacts the global population due to the ongoing homogenisation brought on by greater movement of people around the world on account of increased emigration and wider acceptability of interracial marriages. Even so, we are far from resolving the most fundamental problems besetting humankind. For all our technological advances, entrepreneurial flair and modernity’s hopes and dreams for our future, modern humans have barely learnt to live together in peace and to respect each other. Despite two million years of human evolution, we remain the most dangerous predator on Earth, instinctively tribal, inherently violent, and unduly selfish and self-obsessed. We have barely learnt to live with one another in peace.
If gene-editing can be relied on to expunge racism, violence, jealousy, competitiveness, selfishness, diseases and other murderous intents afflicting our collective humanity, then living with transhumans or cyborgs is a price many of us may be prepared to pay. But lest we get hoisted by our own petard, it would be wise not to leave critical decisions entirely in the hands of either the rich nations or the 1% of the elite billionaires who control half of the global wealth (only 26 in 2018 according to Oxfam) to decide what is right for the vast majority of the human race. The elites’ inability to eliminate global inequality alone gives us a hint why they can never be trusted to serve the broader interests of the 99%. We may be persuaded to accept ‘cognitive enhancements’ offered by parallel neuroscience research, and the bizarre Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) devices under development, if only they could produce ‘empathetic citizens’, not more selfish elites or killer cyborgs, likely to promote greater exclusivism.
For now, no global institution exists to examine such ponderous issues nor is there any global consensus on how to manage rapid growth in such technologies. No mechanisms have been put in place by international community to thoroughly evaluate their overall benefits, and, unavoidably, some risks posed by superhumans, transhumans or cyborgs to the rest of the human species. Whilst some valid concerns have been expressed by bio/ethicists, policymakers, political leaders, law makers, stakeholders, and even the scientists, the legal system has yet again proven itself to be wanting, and too slow to react; often it finds there is little that can be done once the horse has bolted. We are far from the jaws of Twilight Zone but, to apotheosize these technologies, would be to diss the yaws of our collective conscience. It is time for citizens of the world to pay greater attention to how their lives are being shaped and will continue to be reshaped into the future. The technologies are very exciting but their limitations give us just as much food for thought.
In the midst of Covid-19 pandemic, it is a discomforting realisation that the inability of scientists to contain the virus and come up with an effective cure, only underscores the fragility of the human condition and the outer limits of our fealty to pompous scientism. Beyond the euphoria of 4IR and all it is set to deliver, human progress while impressive, has a long way to go before we can bask in the reflected glory of our collective wisdom. It is best to remember the Socratic irony: the more we knew, the less we know. We are mere specks of sand in vastness of space and time. No redemption is vouchsafed to us from some higher power.
Gopal Nair PhD is a Sydney-based writer and critic. The opinions expressed herein are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher(s) – Sydney, updated version June 2020.