These are certainly heady times in the biotech world. With the new mRNA vaccine being created in just a few days in January 2020, someone can mass produce DNA in their garage for the price of a hamburger, and Alpha Fold 2 can predict proteins from DNA with accuracy, rivalling wet lab results, it seems we are on the cusp of something extraordinary. Most viral infections will cease if all we need to do to roll out a new vaccine is sequence the virus genome and mass produce the portion that binds to human cells.
On the darker side, it will also likely mean a greater threat of biowarfare. Creating a new virus may just be a matter of downloading a sequence from one of the many online databases, and having it delivered to your doorstep. Pair this with enormous advances in computational power, perhaps even quantum computing, and the possibilities seem limitless.
These are crazy questions for a crazy era in human history. One might, surveying the scene, believe that we are on the edge of the next step of evolution. Professor Mark Alan Walker (pictured) of New Mexico State University certainly thinks we are. He believes that the technological changes we are facing are so great that “The potential radical change of creating noetic beings overshadows all of the revolutions in human life combined.”
At the same time, there is an interesting paradox underlying his revolution. As Walker also states: “Person-engineering technologies will make it possible to accomplish in a matter of years what evolution would take thousands of millennia to achieve.”
This sort of observation led Ray Kurzweil to propose his notion of a the Singularity. Kurzweil noticed that technologies form a self-feedback loop, resulting in ever more powerful technologies operating at ever greater speeds. And at the core of this technological feedback loop lies the human person, a combination of extraordinary and exquisite
bio-computational technology. The logical conclusion is: the human is the last puzzle to unlock. At that point, in his view, we merge with machines.
On this view, the fantastic catalytic properties that allow us to catapult technological progress into the future is the final frontier of technology. We must live longer, be healthier, think smarter, and focus all our best resources to capture our élan vital in a little grey philosopher’s stone with the Windows chime and the (soon, we are told) self-aware Clippy.
On the two sides of this debate lie the conservatives and the progressives. The conservatives worry about the Pandora’s Box (pictured) of potential evils we are about to open, looking back at the past couple of centuries of untold human destruction. Progressives, meanwhile, marvel at the technotopia that promises to make on earth for us a heaven. In their view, the collateral damage pales in comparison to the infinite vista unfolding right here and right now. We must gird up our loins and immanentize the eschaton! Apotheosis (becoming gods)  is within our grasp!
But there is a third possibility that neither side is considering. And that is: a Singularity is merely logically impossible. Despite the giddy technological progress we have seen in the past couple centuries, even though we have entered an era where many of the poorest among us live like the kings of old, our basic human nature lies unchanged. In fact, some smart people say we have regressed.
Thus, no matter what spectacles the future may bring, as far as the fundamentals are concerned when it comes to ourselves and the world around us, we will be at our limit merely making sure we don’t screw up our what our ancestors have gifted to us through untold labor and sorrow.
Why do I say such a naive thing? Who could possibly think in this day and age nothing fundamentally different is about to happen?
Let’s take a step back. Most of our problems come down to mathematics and the human will, two things which no amount of genetic and silicon gadgetry can change.
Mathematics is the cause of the second law of thermodynamics, the observation that everything in the universe runs down. This amounts merely to saying that what is most likely to occur is most likely to occur.
Disorder and decay are the typical states of the universe. The complex organization of energy we humans see around us in our verdant fertile nest is enormously atypical. This fundamental law drives right through the heart of any technology, genetic or otherwise, that we might invent.
The human will also faces a similar dilemma. No matter how much money, education, affection and attention you give a person, their will is still free to do good and to do evil. No matter how much torture, despair, horror, and sorrow you inflict on a person, their will is still free to do good and to do evil. This is the most incredible and scary fact of our existence. There is nothing anyone can do to conquer a person’s will. The crowning achievements and utterly detestable atrocities of our history have made this clear.
At every period in history, regardless of circumstances, individuals have of their own volition performed acts that show even if there are not angels and devils in an unseen spiritual world, they certainly walk among us in human form. Nothing that will ever occur in the future will change this fundamental fact of human existence.
This brings us back to the paradox that Professor Walker mentions: “Person-engineering technologies will make it possible to accomplish in a matter of years what evolution would take thousands of millennia to achieve.”
Think about this statement for a second. We are about to do something in blink of an eye at which evolution, we are told, has labored away slavishly and wastefully for untold eons. And yet we ourselves are the product of this unmitigatedly stupid (for lack of a better word) physical process. There are two possible explanations for this extreme discontinuity. Either a blind marble rolling around an infinitely complex maze in the dark accidentally hit the single light switch or our origin and destination lie beyond this physical plane. Neither explanation makes the rise of Walker’s godlike beings plausible.
Best case scenario: we would end up with a civilization of 100-year-olds watching cat videos in virtual reality.
Most likely scenario: we will accelerate the genetic entropy of
our genome even more, crippling future generations in our blind
rebellion against reality.
Note: The photo of Mark Alan Walker is courtesy TomAdmirer, CC BY 3.0.
You may also wish to read: Will ordinary human intelligence become the new “oil”? At one time, the tech craze was for outsourcing jobs. Maybe it’s time to look at “insourcing” instead. Since we’ve established that the new IT environment will absolutely depend on human intelligence, the next big frontier will be insourcing. (Eric Holloway)