Star Trek – a future where we don’t change?

I’m way behind on my Star Trekking, but from what I just saw – I watched an episode of “The Next Generation” called “Evolution” that came out in 1989 -it and many other science fiction of the space opera sub-genre seem to miss one huge point – people will evolve and very quickly, yet the people on these shows are all very recognizable as being the same as us.

I hasten to add that might be a necessary fictional device – we tend to relate to people we can recognize as like us – and Star Trek in other episodes, or other form may go way beyond what I’ve seen. But this is not about Star Trek – that’s just ane xample of what I see as a basic mindset we have about ourselves and evolution:That evolution is very slow and we’re going to stay the same for hudnreds, if not thousands, of years. Not so. I think we’re in the early stages right now of rapid and dramatic change.

This is crucial, not just for the future of science fiction, but for the future of the human race – a future that is rushing towards us far, far faster than most people imagine. Yep, I’m talking about Kurzweil again. “The Singularity is Near” is my current reading. I’m having trouble getting deep into it because the beginning pages leave my mind spinning so fast I need to put it down and go do something else. Partly this is because the basic theme is one I’ve toyed with for years – a recognition of how extraordinarily different these times are – these moments we are living right now – from any moments lived by the human race before. That alone seems hard for many people to see judging the way they appear to be sleepwalking through their lives. It’s so easy to underestimate your times – to think that what you are experiencing is pretty much the norm. It’s isn’t. It isn’t even remotely close to normal. And what’s just around the next bend is even more unusual. As Kurzweil said in a recent interview:

The computer in your cell phone today is a million times cheaper and a thousand times more powerful and about a hundred thousand times smaller (than the one computer at MIT in 1965) and so that’s a billion-fold increase in capability per dollar or per euro that we’ve actually seen in the last 40 years,” says Kurzweil.

The rate is actually speeding up a little bit, so we will see another billion-fold increase in the next 25 years–and another hundred-thousand-fold shrinking. So what used to fit in a building now fits in your pocket, what fits in your pocket now will fit inside a blood cell in 25 years.

So it’s not simply that humongous change is coming fast – it’s coming faster with each advancing year. That is, the pace of change is advancing as well.

But when we do think of change we usually think interms of change to machines. I find it ironic that this particular Star Trek episode is called “evolution,” but deals only with a limited example. The episode is about the rapid evolution of some bots that have gotten into the ship’s computer and are inadvertently threatening the existence of the ship. So what? They are talking here about self-replicating machines and the rapid evolution of those machines. But as Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977) told us half a century ago, “there are things still coming ashore.” We get it in our heads that evolution ends here – with us. But it doesn’t. However, I’m not sure Eiseley saw how fast evolution would be moving – that the new beach was not on the shore of an ocean, but in Silicon Valley and other such places. I think we’re plunging head first into the next step in our evolution as we sit at these machines right now and read and type.

Yes, right here – right now – we’re not simply building global communities, but a global mind. And while the machine is separate from us – it is out there – it will not remain so for long. In fact, the first steps of melding silicon and carbon have already been taken. Witness the monkey games so extensively reported last spring. In these experiments monkeys were able to control the movement of a robotic arm by their thoughts alone. Simply thinking about what they wanted the arm to do would result in the arm doing the task – which in this case included feeding the monkeys. The key, of course, involved a brain implant.

That’s the future, I believe. I think all the little things we’re doing here with blogs, Goggle, YouTube, RSS feeds, Digg, comments, links, embedding video and Flickr slideshows – all of these things are preliminary explorations akin to the preliminary steps the monkeys took when they used a joystick to move the robotic arm. What we are doing is exploring related technologies and developing new types of social interactions using these technologies. But the logical next step is more direct integration with our brains.

The other morning, while in that dreamy, half-awake state, it came ot me that in the future I would merely think about a friend and have in my thoughts a public space in their rains where they had set words and images aside for sharing. I could go with them on a hike, if they choose to let me in, as an extension of the hiker today who stands on a mountain top, pulls out her cell phone, and sends video toa friend back home of what she is seeing at that moment.

We are not that far away from when we will need to wonder whether we are looking at a human being assisted by a machine, or a machine assisted by a human being. As Kurzweil puts it:

You won’t be able to walk into a room and say “OK, humans on the left, machines on the right,” because it’s going to be all mixed up.

But I’m just toying with some ideas here. If you haven’t met Kurzweil and encounterd his way of thinking, here’s a real good, bite-sized starting place. (Also recommended for those who have already read his books. ) I can’t pick out what all to quote from this – I want to quote the whole thing. So I’ll just link.

Or you can get a video version – not of the same thing, but of some basic, digestible Kurzweil.

Or if you want to wait a decade or two, you can just think Kurzweil and . . .

OH – and btw. I know I’m three years behind time. I find it impossible to keep up. So I write this for myself and the other slow learners out there πŸ˜‰


4 Responses

  1. I’m not sure if evolution is the right word here, I find it a little confusing. Of course I haven’t read Kurzweil, as you know, so I’m at a disadvantage in this conversation. I’m just going on what you’ve written. (And I don’t remember that particular episode of TNG. πŸ™‚

    We may change — we may incorporate technology into our bodies (last night I watched a guy on TV swallow a disposable thermometer that he could then access through a device held up to his gut, obviously a macro example of what you’re describing), but to me that isn’t really evolution. It seems like every time we add a medical advance, we’re slowing evolution down or possibly changing it because we’re changing the conditions under which we survive long enough to reproduce. We’re changing the environment on a huge scale, but are we seeing evolutionary changes based on the environmental changes? The last evolutionary change I’m aware of is the ability to digest cow’s milk, which happened some time after we switched to an agrarian culture from a hunter/gatherer culture, I think.

    It is very complex. I don’t know if the miniaturization/cost argument is logical, he seems to be making an assumption that it’s a linear change that will continue… I don’t know. I know that he’s studied all of this in great detail and again I haven’t read him, so I really don’t know. But I think the premise of the argument needs to be examined critically.

  2. Hmmm . . . I’m wondering if you might be restricting yourself with too narrow a definition of evolution? To me the key here is a switch from carbon (biological) to silicon (machine.) But to appreciate that switch we need to be careful not to break the world into a false dichotomy of human and machine – natural and unnatural. From my perspective it’s all natural. It can’t help but be. We’re part of the world and whatever we do is part of the natural process.

    Evolution, as I’m sure you know, is not survival of the fittest – in the usual sense of that phrase – it’s finding a niche and fine-tuning ourselves so we fit that niche. (Also fine-tuning the niche.) But we happen to have evolved as the first creatures on this planet who have both a brain and a thumb that together enable us to do the sort of adjustments to ourselves – and our environment – that for other creatures are done by a much slower process using biology alone. This means we can speed up the usual evolutionary process.

    Swallowing a thermometer may be a step in this direction – but it’s still just putting a tool inside you – something doctors do all the time. That’s not the same as making a tool part of you – such as a pacemaker, or cochlear Implant, Wiring the monkeys so their synapses actually trigger events outside their bodies – that to me seems major. Now the machine starts to become part of the creature – not just an add-on, but something integral.

  3. I don’t know — the fittest genes — the ones that are capable of producing a cochlear implant, for example, or wiring the brains of monkeys, are not the genes benefiting from the technology. Or, they’re not the only ones benefiting from the technology. I’m not sure what that means in terms of evolution. The fittest genes are helping the unfit to survive.

  4. Umm… isn’t survival of the species the goal – I don’t mean of us altruistic sorts, but of nature?

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