More from the What is Enlightenment? website.
Our Emerging Future
Impressions from: Jeremy Rifkin, Elisabet Sahtouris, Barbara Marx Hubbard, and Ray Kurzweil
Faster Forward by Melissa Hoffman
Most of us already know that the world is changing fast—we can feel it in our bones and we can smell it in the air, even though we may not always be able to put our finger on just what it is that’s happening. We may notice that the weather is more capricious, or we may shake off a bit of irritation when we find out, for example, that the new computer we purchased just a few months ago has already been superseded by a better-faster-smaller-cheaper-hipper-looking model. What would happen if we sat down to look at what all these small signs of change, taken together and viewed over a longer span of time, might actually be pointing to? It’s not necessarily a comfortable or easy exercise to undertake, as we discovered. Because, as those who spend a lot of time thinking about things like change and time will tell you, the kind of change we’re in the midst of right now is, by its very nature, different from what we’ve known before. How? According to the scientists and futurists featured here, all of these apparently isolated changes are part of a larger wave of systemic change that is now occurring with a magnitude and complexity greater than anything the human race has yet experienced. And that rate, some say, is accelerating exponentially—a concept that alone is overwhelming to comprehend. Indeed, the more we learned about change and the future, the more we found ourselves asking the question: Can our existing spiritual and ethical structures—both traditional and contemporary—equip us to handle the enormity, the speed, the complexity, and the overwhelming nature of the changes we’re undergoing? Changes that may shortly take us, as you will see in the interviews that follow, far beyond our current capacities of imagination.
As a first step toward finding the answers to these questions, we spoke with a number of scientists, evolutionary thinkers, and futurists, who each view the world of change from a slightly different perspective. From biologist Elisabet Sahtouris’s microscopic empires of warring bacteria to inventor Ray Kurzweil’s intravenous brain-enhancing nanobots; from futurist Jeremy Rifkin’s deathblow to the oil age to Barbara Marx Hubbard’s birth of a new consciousness, each contributor opens a unique window into the many dimensions of our changing life conditions. Whether the subject of discussion is as large as our universe or as small as a nanotube, whether it’s as tangible as petroleum or as ephemeral as consciousness—one thing you can count on is that it’s ALL changing. And just how much and how fast is something that all of us, like it or not, are about to find out.
Jeremy Rifkin is author of sixteen books on the impact of technological changes on the economy, the workforce, and society. He is an advisor to heads of state and government officials worldwide and speaks frequently before business, labor, and civic forums. Currently a fellow at the Wharton School of Business and the president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, he spoke with What Is Enlightenment? from his office in Washington, DC.
The End of an Era with Jeremy Rifkin
WIE: The human species is experiencing unprecedented change at almost every level of its existence—technological, ecological, social, and political—and this is all happening on a global scale. From your perspective as a futurist and corporate consultant, can you describe what kinds of changes you’re seeing now and expect to see in the future?
JEREMY RIFKIN: During the twenty-first century, we are going to see the end of mass wage labor on this planet. Sophisticated new technologies—software technologies, computer technologies, robotic technologies, intelligent technologies—are already beginning to replace entire job categories. Within less than a decade, we’re going to produce goods and services we can’t even imagine yet, and many new professional skills will emerge, but these will not be mass labor jobs. We will see smaller and smaller elite workforces working side by side with increasingly intelligent technology. By the mid-decades of the twenty-first century, we’re going to be able to produce goods and services for the whole world with a fraction of the workforce we have now.
The key question this raises is, what will happen to millions of human beings when we no longer need them to produce basic goods and services? We’re already seeing that there is nowhere in the world where we are not facing long-term structural unemployment. So how do we redefine what a human being is in the twenty-first century? Whether consciously or unconsciously, we have become so accustomed to defining humans in terms of their productivity at the workplace that we scratch our head when we try to think: Is there something else human beings on earth can do? If you think about it, you start to see how narrowly constructed our consciousness is about ourselves.
The Age of Biology
Physics and chemistry dominated the first two industrial revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and we’re now moving into the age of biology, which will be the foundation and the basic framework for the third industrial revolution of the twenty-first century. The age of biology, which is already under way, is going to raise unprecedented issues because we now have the ability to manipulate life at its component level: genes, proteins, cell lines, organs, tissues—even whole organisms. In addition to provoking serious public debate, the age of biology is going to raise the issue of how we define all of creation in a world where we can begin to reassemble it, manipulate it, redefine it, and organize it as a utility.
We’ll have to decide: Do we take a hard path or a soft path? Which means deciding: Will we use the new science to create a second genesis, to redefine and reconfigure millions of years of evolution, including our own, and, in a sense, play God? Or, will we use the new science to better understand the relationship between genes and environment, so that we can more fully—and more humbly, if you will—integrate ourselves into the first evolution on this planet? The soft path asks how we can better integrate our science and technology into working with, as opposed to against, millions of years of evolution and the ecosystems that support it. It represents a more elegant, more intellectually sophisticated, and much more scientifically advanced approach because it requires a deep understanding of framework, of context, of all the relationships and choreography that exist in nature. So, the age of biology is going to be critical for humanity. It’s going to force us to define, and even possibly redefine, what a human being is. We’ll have to carefully discern what our relationship is to our fellow species. What are our obligations to the planet, and how do we judge the intrinsic value, as opposed to the utility value, of life?
The New Hydrogen Regime
“What’s amazing about hydrogen is that when you use it to produce power, heat, and light, the only byproduct is pure water. You can drink it! Hydrogen produces no carbon dioxide at all. So if we were to move to this
“forever fuel,” it would potentially address all the major oil-related crises we now face: we could radically reduce global warming, the Middle East would become increasingly less important in the geopolitics of the world, and we could narrow the divide between the haves and have-nots—because once it’s harnessed, hydrogen’s available everywhere on the planet.”
Energy Is Power
Right now, we have three great crises facing the human family, and they’re all connected to oil. The first is global warming, the second is the increasing debt in the third world, and the third is the potential for more wars in the Middle East.
Global warming is probably the most impressive challenge faced by humanity. It represents the dark side of the Industrial Age; it’s the bill for two hundred years of burning fossil fuels. I think that if you were to measure human accomplishment on this planet in terms of sheer impact, you would have to say that global warming is the greatest single accomplishment of the human race, although it’s a negative one. Why? Because global warming has affected the entire biochemistry of the earth in less than one century. That’s very impressive—negative but impressive! Even if the temperature change will be in the lower range predicted by the studies (the higher range is a ten degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature; the lower range is three or four degrees), we’re still in trouble. These changes will force, in less than a century, a shift in climate that is equal to the change from the last ice age to today—and that took fifteen thousand years. Remember, half the planet was under ice fifteen thousand years ago. So we’re talking about changes of that magnitude in less than a century, and our ecosystems and human systems cannot accommodate that without some serious losses.
If you look at the situation in terms of economics, there are also indirect financial costs associated with global warming, which we tend not to factor in. When I consult with leaders in the reinsurance industry, they don’t know how to deal with it. The big question that comes up is: How do you insure against agricultural depletion, coastal flooding, wildfires, droughts, and severe weather patterns? The magnitude of these issues and the amounts of money involved become just enormous. Some companies have already begun to analyze the costs of all these problems, and it’s so much money that the total will eventually start to approach the actual value of our gross domestic product. (Gross Domestic Product is the total market value of all the goods and services produced within the borders of a nation during a specific period.)
Third World Debt
The second crisis we’re facing is third world debt. It’s easy for people in the West to forget that there’s a great divide between the haves and have-nots—and it’s getting worse and worse. Never before in history have so few enjoyed access to so much of the world’s resources and so many been denied. We don’t know of any proportional example in history—from the Paleolithic era to early modernity—where we’ve seen a divide of this magnitude in our human race. It’s truly unparalleled. Some of us are aware of this tremendous divide, but most of us don’t connect it with oil. When OPEC imposed the oil embargo back in the seventies, the price of oil shot up from $3 to $12 a barrel. And since then it’s never gone down. So, for thirty years, third world countries have been desperately borrowing money from the IMF, the World Bank, and other lending institutions to try to pay for oil they can’t afford in order to modernize their economies. So now, 83 cents out of every dollar borrowed in the third world is being used to pay off bad debts—and they’re not even getting the oil. These countries are now spending more money to pay back past loans than they are spending on basic human services. So eighty-nine countries out there are worse off than they were ten years ago. Keep in mind that as the price of oil continues to go up and as we reach global peak, the third world is going to be caught in a downward cycle of ever-deepening poverty and despair.
The Middle East
The third crisis we’re facing is connected to the increasingly volatile situation in the Middle East. If you take a step back, you can see that the modern age has been driven by the use of fossil fuels. Look at how we’ve been living for the past one hundred years and you’ll understand how critical oil and fossil fuels are to our very existence. Our foods are grown in petrochemical fertilizer, our clothes are made out of chemical synthetics, our plastics, our building materials, our heat, our light, our pharmaceuticals all come from oil. But we’re just beginning to see that we will have used up half of the world’s supply of cheap crude oil (this is called “global peak”) sometime between 2010 and 2035—and whichever date you believe, it’s still an incredibly short time from now. That’s the critical point though; that’s when the era is over. Because from that time forward, prices will never go down.
When we do reach peak, two-thirds of the remaining reserves of cheap oil will happen to be in the Middle East, which is the most troubled and politically volatile area of the world. If we think the Middle East is a trouble spot today, imagine what it will be like seven or fifteen years from now when that’s where all the remaining oil is. And not only that, but other nations, like China and India, are expected to need as much oil as the U.S. and the European nations within ten years from now; so everyone’s going to be fighting for that oil. It’s a dangerous, dangerous geo-political game being played out.
So if you add it all up—global warming, an increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots, more third world debt, and growing geopolitical and military pressures in the Middle East, compounded with the fact that global production of oil is likely to peak sometime within the next ten to thirty-five years—it means we’re at the end of an era. As we move toward this very dangerous endgame for the current energy regime, a new hydrogen energy regime is on the horizon. The key question is: How do we get from here to there in a way that will allow us to cross the divide and not collapse civilization?
Elisabet Sahtouris, PhD, is an evolution biologist, futurist, author, and consultant on Living Systems Design. Dr. Sahtouris speaks and consults internationally, showing the relevance of biological systems to organizational design in businesses, government, and global trade. Her books include EarthDance: Living Systems in Evolution, A Walk Through Time: From Stardust to Us, and Biology Revisioned, coauthored with Willis Harman.
The Wisdom of Living Systems with Elisabet Sahtouris
“The Globalization of humanity is a natural, biological, evolutionary process. Yet we face an enormous crisis because the most central and important aspect of globalization—its economy—is currently being organized in a manner that so gravely violates the fundamental principles by which healthy living systems are organized that it threatens the demise of our whole civilization.”
WIE: At this unique time, we’re faced with unprecedented change in almost every dimension of human existence—biological, social, political, economic, technological—and all of this, as you have noted in your work, is happening in the context of our historic move toward economic and social globalization. Can you describe, from your perspective as a futurist and evolution biologist, the nature of the global changes we’re experiencing and what new opportunities and challenges they present us with at this time?
ELISABET SAHTOURIS: From my perspective as an evolution biologist, what I see happening now in the human species’ move to social and economic globalization is, in essence, the same thing that has happened previously on Earth to almost all other species. For example, billions of years ago, ancient bacteria, after millions of years of hostile competition that ultimately threatened them with extinction, began to negotiate with each other to form amazingly cooperative colonies. In their competitive phase, they had developed elaborate technologies such as the electric motor, solar energy plants, and heat-producing nuclear piles, along with infrastructures resembling cities that we can only now see under the newest microscopes. The tiny archaebacteria, with their specialized lifestyles and technologies, then created the most dramatic event to occur in Earth’s evolution since their own initial appearance out of the Earth’s mineral crust. The nucleated cell—an entirely new life-form about a thousand times larger than an individual bacterium—formed, as the bacteria took on divisions of labor and donated part of their unique genomes to the new cell’s nucleus. Thus, the nucleated cell—the only kind of cell other than bacterial ever to evolve on Earth—represents a higher unity than the bacteria achieved after eons of tension and hostilities, as they engaged in successful negotiations and cooperative evolution. This process—whereby tension and hostilities between individuals lead to negotiations and then ultimately to cooperation as a greater unity—is the basic evolutionary process of all life forms on our planet, as I see it.
This same cycle accounts for how competing nucleated cells united into multicelled creatures (like us), and it is happening now for a third time, as we competitive multicelled humans are driven to evolve a new, cooperative global society or “cell,” which will function at a higher level of complexity and unity than any species before us could achieve. Like the ancient bacteria, we humans are evolving from a competitive, aggressive, juvenile phase to a cooperative mature phase as we complete the cycle.
WIE: Just to clarify what you said about globalization, are you talking about the emergence of a wholly different organism, as different as the nucleated cell was from bacteria?
ES: Yes. From my perspective, globalization is the biggest thing that’s happened since the nucleated cell. Our global economy, and more generally, our global family, will be made up of existing individuals, families, and larger social units, but we will weave ourselves together in unforeseeable new ways. In essence, we are forming a species superorganism that will be able to merge cooperatively into our ecosystems and the living systems of the Earth. So far, in our adolescent empire-building phase (which has lasted for ten thousand years), we have used up huge amounts of Earth’s resources to build our societies, nations, and corporations. But now we recognize that this destruction must be ended by forging more cooperative alliances. That’s our biological imperative, and our alternative to species suicide.
WIE: What do you think it’s going to take for more of us to grasp the seriousness of our situation? How would you describe those conditions that are going to provoke us to really change?
ES: A deteriorating atmosphere, a polluted water supply (we are already beginning to fight water wars rather than oil wars), soils deteriorating from erosion and chemical pollution, the proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons, highly dangerous agricultural toxins, and “engineered” plants and animals. Genetic engineering has already caused terrible disasters in Canada, the United States, and Mexico and is quickly spreading to the rest of the world. In the United States, we can’t guarantee soy or corn as organic anymore because pollen from genetically modified (GM) plants is blowing everywhere and contaminating non-GM crops. In Mexico, wild stocks of corn that were carefully protected as insurance against diseases threatening our monocultures [large expanses of single-strain agriculture] are all polluted now by GM corn pollen. This is a major, major disaster, but you’re just not seeing it reported. In America, one researcher was fired after demonstrating that the organs of rats, including their brains, were shrinking and becoming leather-like after being fed genetically modified potatoes. In our supermarkets, over sixty percent of the food is GM now, with no labeling requirements and no research on how it affects our children.
Food-supply corporations jumped in with enthusiasm to create and sell these products before we knew how they would affect either people or ecosystems. Most “bioengineers”simply do not understand living systems. All Earth’s species trade DNA among themselves, but they know what they’re doing. You see, nature is fundamentally very intelligent, but scientists think they can treat genomes like mechanisms, chopping out a gene here and sticking it in somewhere else, like substituting screws in machines. But genomes just don’t work that way. If you put the same gene into six different people, it will express in six different ways. The system as a whole is intelligent. Genetic engineering failed thoroughly in early trials because genomes identified implanted genes as inappropriate and edited them out. But now scientists shoot the genes in under force and “Krazy Glue” them into place, so that the organism is forced to accept them. Last summer, I visited a Dutch dairy farm where they were doing very interesting research showing the disruption of entire plants by a single gene implant. It seems that the whole organism tries to protect itself, somewhat in the way flesh hardens and reddens around a splinter.
WIE: So given the critical conditions that you have outlined here, what are the primary capacities that human beings will have to develop in order to respond?
ES: Well, what holds us up is our economic system because its win/lose mindset is appropriate only for a juvenile species. Competitive capitalism is a system designed to concentrate wealth among the few while inevitably depleting the wealth of the vast majority. Such destructive behavior is permitted only because we have not recognized that we, as a species, are a living system, just as are our individual bodies and our families. Notice that families don’t starve three children to overfeed the fourth, for example, or beautify one corner of the garden by destroying the other three. We understand living systems up close, but we have not been taught to see the larger systems, such as our global economy, as equally alive and in danger!
We haven’t recognized ourselves as a living system because we don’t understand living systems. Science has interpreted nature in terms of physics and engineering, seeing it as composed of mechanisms. The biggest innovation we need is a completely new scientific worldview from a living-systems perspective. A biology-based model of a living universe shows self-organized and self-regulated holarchies (self-contained systems which are interdependently embedded in each other, such as a cell, an organism, a family, or an ecosystem). Gravity and radiation, entropy and syntropy, are in cyclic balance, just as are anabolism and catabolism—the buildup and breakdown/recycling of living tissue. It’s a beautiful, elegant universe. Yet it’s difficult to change a scientific worldview—the old guard can’t afford to understand and acknowledge the well-researched information that will turn their whole worldview over. It’s like expecting a caterpillar to be enthusiastic about dissolving so that a butterfly can form!
WIE: So you’re saying that the primary capacities required would be, first, to recognize how destructive our current worldview is and, second, to be willing to bear the discomfort of letting that worldview go?
ES: Yes. It’s hard to create anything new in the living world without some chaos or disruption or dissolution of old systems. We’re in a situation now that’s very much like the development of a butterfly in a chrysalis. The caterpillar’s immune system is still trying to protect itself as a caterpillar—and to me, that’s what our insistence on clinging to the oil age is all about. From a biological perspective, it’s the job of the old system to protect itself as long as possible. But it’s equally the job of the new system to rally its forces until it can overcome the old immune system and build the new.
Evolve or Die! with Barbara Marx Hubbard
WIE: We’re at a unique time in history. We’re faced with unprecedented change at almost every level of human existence—biological, social, political, and technological—and all of this is occurring on a global scale. Could you describe, from your perspective as a futurist and someone who’s been involved in this work for decades, what the changes are that we’re actually seeing? Many of us can’t even perceive them at this time. What can we anticipate the life conditions of the future to be?
BARBARA MARX HUBBARD: Well, we happen to be the generation born at the most dangerous time since the origin of Homo sapiens. We’re passing through a period of transition where we have gained the power to destroy or create at a level we used to attribute only to gods. And that’s not slowing down; it’s growing. The danger is, obviously, that we’ll misuse that power and descend into chaos and collapse. If you look at the recent findings about the evolution of Homo sapiens, we didn’t progress in a linear fashion from Homo erectus to Homo lapillus to Homo Neanderthal to Homo sapiens. There were many, many sub-types of human that actually didn’t prevail. But it turned out that we Homo sapiens sapiens with self-reflective consciousness emerged between fifty and thirty-five thousand years ago. And what is occurring now is that self-reflective Homo sapiens sapiens has gained so much knowledge and has had such an impact on nature—particularly recently with the discoveries of the atomic bomb, the gene, nanotechnology, and biotechnology—that the form of consciousness that brought us to this brink does not have the capacity to take us across it.
WIE: What capacities are lacking in our current form of consciousness?
BMH: Self-reflective self-consciousness doesn’t have the scope of whole system consciousness or the evolutionary understanding necessary to solve the kinds of problems we’re facing. You see, we have images of life after death, of paradise, of the New Jerusalem, of other states of being and other worlds, but not of this world evolved. But generally, we now know that we’re in an unprecedented situation at a global scale. A growing number of people are aware that we inhabit a finite planet. One more doubling of the population would give us twelve billion people, and nobody really thinks we can sustain that. Add to that the damage to our basic life-support systems, and then add to that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorists who are willing to use them. It’s comic to try to solve these problems in the ways we’re going at them.
In evolution, when a situation arises that can’t be solved by doing more of the same, and when danger to the whole system is imminent, then from my point of view, this is an evolutionary driver either toward real devolution, if we don’t respond, or, if we do respond, toward evolution and transformation.
If you look back at other great jumps in the spiral of evolution—from pre-life to life, or single cell to animal, or animal to human—there are recurring patterns. Biologist Elisabet Sahtouris speaks very clearly about this. For example, she shows how, when a species is young, it’s rapacious, territorial, and competitive, and then it hits a limit to its own growth. Then, either it learns to negotiate and cooperate with its competitors and unify at a higher level, or it goes extinct.
So the set of global conditions, although they’re unprecedented for us, are actually like a fractal of patterns that have occurred in the past. We know that great cataclysms have occurred and could occur again. But of all the species that have ever gone extinct, we’re the only ones waking up to the possibility that we’re doing it. And that waking up is an evolutionary driver toward far greater innovation and transformation: spiritual, social, and technological.
WIE: So in your view, the crisis that we’re in is natural.
BMH: I’m looking at the crisis on Earth—which we could recount in detail, as many, many people do—as a set of complexities that are, to some degree, natural. It’s natural that an intelligent species would be successful enough to hit the limits of its own growth without knowing it was going to do so. It’s natural that through our successes we have overindustrialized, overpopulated, polluted, and used up our environment. It may be that this whole predicament is a natural phenomenon and that this intelligent species, which has finally gained an understanding of the atom, the gene, and the brain, is now getting a signal: evolve or die.
Among the signals we’ve been getting, some are extreme crises, and others are incredible new capacities. For example, our scientific understanding of DNA means that Homo sapiens sapiens is understanding the design of life and is now making judgments about how we should redesign life. Well, if you put that in the context of an earthbound species in a closed system with limited self-consciousness and weapons of mass destruction, you see a bitter end. But if you place that situation in an evolutionary context, you could say that the set of crises could be, by analogy, a crisis of birth toward a species capable of coevolution with nature and cocreation with spirit. This would mean understanding how nature evolves—not just how to maintain it, but deeply understanding that the nature of nature is to evolve.
So what would it mean to respond to this set of crises and opportunities? Would it mean that we would actually learn to manage a planetary ecology? Would it mean that we would actually learn to coexist with other species on this planet? It would mean a lot more than that. It would entirely change the nature of human relationship and the structure of society. We have mechanistic social systems now, which are based on an incorrect understanding of nature and, consequently, are destructive to the people in them and to the biosphere. So we’re going to be forced to develop synergistic social systems because we’re not going to be able to evolve harmoniously with nature unless our social systems reflect a natural design.
WIE: Have you seen evidence that these kinds of social changes are beginning to take place?
BMH: I’ll never forget when I was staying with a group of nuns in South Bend, Indiana, during a Fourth of July weekend. I was there at the same time that WorldCom and Enron were falling. And there was a Catholic priest there named Diarmuid O’Murchu who wrote a book called Quantum Theology. Anyway, he got up and he said, “Evolution was working for billions of years before organized religion, and it will be working for billions of years after organized religion.” And then, as a Catholic priest speaking to a group of nuns, he said, “The Catholic Church will not hold, because not only is the story wrong but the hierarchy is wrong. The structure is wrong. The whole thing is wrong.” And the nuns all stood up and cheered! Now, they loved Jesus. It had nothing to do with not loving Jesus. And I suddenly thought, “Maybe this is the way it has to happen. Hierarchical, mechanistic structures are not adequate for an interactive, conscious, evolutionary world.” And those structures are going. What we hope is that they don’t collapse too fast and lead to complete chaos.
Incidentally, I think that all the major world religions were founded in an earlier phase of human evolution by people whose consciousness clearly was way beyond the ordinary. They left behind teachings that hold within them a profound seed of the truth about the evolution of our species. But the structures that built up around those religions have narrowed them to the point where, now, while we’re engaged in this period of massive transition, they are becoming regressive.
WIE: What is it that you think is actually going to motivate individuals, on a very personal level, to begin to reconfigure these familiar social institutions and organizations?
BMH: There are many things already motivating us. We are rapidly becoming interconnected through all our media, our economic systems, our defense systems, and our cultural and communication systems. The complexification of the larger system is impacting each individual directly and indirectly in a multitude of ways. The potential of the individual human is so great, but it is barely tapped by the kinds of lives most of us lead. However, the force of evolution within us is pressing to come through because the body is complexifying. We’re beginning to understand that we are living members of a living planetary body which is itself integrating into a new whole system.
So to go back to what’s happening right now: we’re either in a crisis of birth toward a new species, or we’re heading toward self-destruction. I think the crisis is natural, because it’s natural to hit limits and challenges as we increase our knowledge and success. The awakening of our species and our search for solutions is occurring, but it’s scattered, and it’s certainly not in dominion anywhere. The larger social structures are proving to be inadequate to solve the problems they’re creating. New social innovations are emerging everywhere, but they are not sufficiently connected or empowered. So right now, any effort that we can make to connect and create greater synergy and participation in this awakening process is probably the most important thing we can do.
“It’s natural that an intelligent species would be successful enough to hit the limits of its own growth without knowing it was going to do so. It’s natural that through our successes we have overindustrialized, overpopulated, polluted, and used up our environment. It may be that this whole predicament is a natural phenomenon and that this intelligent species is now getting a signal: evolve or die.”
“Nature always creates new bodies for new frontiers; witness the sequence of bodies from fish to amphibians to mammals to humans, and now to universal humans. We are at the threshold of genuine newness. The only difference between us and other creatures who experienced a radical change is that we are entering the process consciously.”
Ray Kurzweil is a computer scientist, inventor, successful entrepreneur, author, and one of our nation’s foremost futurists. Named Honorary Chairman for Innovation at the White House Conference on Small Business by President Reagan in 1986, his many important inventions include the first reading machine for the blind and, through collaboration with Stevie Wonder, the first music synthesizer capable of creating the sound of a grand piano. He was awarded the 1999 National Medal of Technology—the nation’s highest honor in his field—by President Clinton, and has won international acclaim for his book The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, which is now published in nine languages.
The Technology of Universal Intelligence with Ray Kurzweil
WIE: The human species is experiencing unprecedented change at almost every level of its existence—technological, biological, social, and political—and this is all happening on a global scale. From your perspective as a futurist, an inventor, and an entrepreneur, can you describe what changes you’re seeing and expect to see in the future?
Ray Kurzweil: The most significant change that my investigation as an inventor has uncovered is that the pace of change is itself accelerating. Centuries ago, people didn’t even realize that anything was changing at all. They expected their grandchildren to live the same lives that they did, and largely those expectations were borne out. That started to change around the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, two centuries ago. But today, people still understand the rate of change to be a constant. In fact it’s not a constant. You see, evolution works by indirection. It creates some capability and it uses that capability to create the next stage. That’s why it accelerates. So change is actually growing exponentially, and according to my models, we’re roughly doubling the rate of progress every decade.
So that means the twentieth century was like twenty years of change at today’s rate of change; in the next twenty years we’re going to make five times the progress you saw in the twentieth century; and we’ll make twenty thousand years of progress in the twenty-first century, which is almost a thousand times more technical change than we saw in the twentieth century. Exponential change is quite explosive.
WIE: It certainly is.
RK: And I can tell you emphatically that very few futurists or scientists, when they think and talk about the future, take this into consideration. It makes a profound difference. Fifty years from now the world is going to be profoundly different. A hundred years from now it’s going to be almost unimaginably different from today. But when futurists think about fifty years from now, they think, “Well, what kind of changes have we seen over the last fifty years?” And that’s their guide for the next fifty years. But we’ll see about thirty times more change over the next fifty years than we did in the last fifty years because of this exponential growth. I can’t underscore enough how important this insight is.
For example, when the Human Genome Project was first announced fifteen years ago, mainstream critics said, “There’s no way you’re going to be able to sequence the human genome in fifteen years. Using our most advanced equipment, we only managed to do one ten-thousandth of the project in the last year.” And this was fifteen years ago. But in fact, the speed of DNA sequencing doubled every year and, interestingly, most of the job got done during the last eighteen months of the project.
If you put all these trends together, you come up with some profound implications. And one of the most significant implications is that within twenty-five years we will have completed the reverse engineering of the human brain, which is to say we will understand its principles of operation in quite some detail, and we will be able to mechanically simulate its function. We are actually in the early stages of it now—kind of analogous to where the genome project was about twelve years ago.
So about twenty-five years from now, we’ll have tiny computers that cost only a few dollars that are able to emulate brain-level functionality, and we will have mastered ways of putting them in the human body without surgery, noninvasively. For example, today, there are already four conferences on what are called “bioMEMS,” which stands for “biological microelectronic mechanical systems,” which involves putting little robots the size of human blood cells into our bloodstream. One scientist actually cured type 1 diabetes in rats by putting tiny devices in the bloodstream that let out insulin and block antibodies.
So if we project out to the late 2020s when all these trends I just mentioned have matured, we’ll be able to routinely put millions or billions of these cell-sized nanobots in the human bloodstream. They’ll be able to communicate with each other over a wireless local area network and with the internet, which will be very pervasive by that time. But most importantly, they’ll be able to communicate noninvasively with our biological neurons. In fact, communication between electronics and neurons has already been demonstrated. So all this points to the various ways in which we will be able to expand human intelligence—which, to me, is the most significant change to come.
WIE: What you’ve described so far would seem to suggest that in the future, we will literally reshape and redefine what it means to be human. What are some of the broader philosophical and spiritual questions that these technologies will raise?
RK: Well, there are a few of what I would call “spiritual implications” of all of this. One very obvious one, which you mentioned, is the question, “What is a human being?” That is a spiritual question today. Thirty years from now, we will encounter nonbiological entities, robots, which are based on the reverse engineering of human intelligence, that act human and are as complex as humans. And even when you talk to an ordinary biological human, you’ll be talking to an entity with deeply integrated nonbiological thinking processes, which may exceed the biological ones. Keep in mind that the idea of putting computers in your brain is not just a future concept. For example, the FDA just approved an implant for Parkinson’s disease that replaces the portion of the brain that the disease destroys. And implants used by the deaf are becoming much more sophisticated. These processes require surgery today, but with nanobots we’ll be able to do these things very routinely, without surgery, a quarter century from now. So what is a human? It’s not going to be a simple question.
The most important answer, in my view, is that humans are a species that inherently seeks to expand its horizons. Humans didn’t stay on the ground. Humans didn’t even stay on the planet. And we’re certainly not staying within the limitations of our biology. Just to give you another example, we’re in the very early stages of being able to change our genetic inheritance by changing our genes, and, eventually, we’re going to go beyond biology and genetics to redesign the human body and brain. In fact, there’s already a design for replacing all the components of our blood with nano-engineered robotic devices. If you had these robotic red blood cells—respirocytes, as scientist Rob Freitas calls them—which are about a thousand times better than our red blood cells at holding oxygen, you could sit at the bottom of your pool for four hours without taking a breath, or take an Olympic sprint for fifteen minutes without taking a breath. And the robotic white blood cells are hundreds, if not thousands, of times more powerful than our ordinary white blood cells at destroying pathogens. They can download software from the internet and destroy any kind of pathogen.
WIE: Do you think that human beings will have to develop new skills to deal effectively with these outrageous capabilities that technology is going to give us?
RK: Yes, I think so. You could say that even today we have powerful technologies we struggle to control. The new technologies are going to be immeasurably more powerful than what we’ve seen to date, and they can have tremendous benefit. For example, nanotechnology devices will be able to create any physical entity, including food, from extremely inexpensive raw materials, which could basically wipe out poverty. These new technologies will ultimately help us overcome disease and aging and clean up the environment. But they also create some very frightening destructive potentials. So how do we take advantage of the promises while we control the perils? This is probably the greatest challenge facing us.
WIE: You emphasized earlier that most of us don’t really grasp the exponential or accelerating nature of change. Do you think we underestimate it at our peril?
RK: Well, I think it is remarkable that otherwise thoughtful people continually make projections of the future that reflect linear thinking, which gives a very incorrect picture. There are profound future potentials that will be here a lot sooner than we think.
Even ten or fifteen years from now, there’s going to be far more change than most people realize, and given the slow speed of developing consensus on a social and political level, these are issues we need to begin to have more intense dialogues about. We need to understand the exponential nature of change. An exponential is a mathematical function that starts off almost like a flat line. There’s nothing happening that you can notice. Then it starts to move up and it moves up faster and faster, until finally, when it gets to the knee of the curve, it kind of explodes upward with great fury. And we’re at the early stages now of that knee of the curve. We’re at the point where a lot of these technologies are beginning to explode, and we need to understand this concept so we will have a realistic picture of what lies ahead for human civilization.
WIE: You mentioned earlier that as human beings we naturally seek to expand our horizons, and that in the future we will do so largely through the expansion of our intelligence. Do you see the expansion of human intelligence as an evolutionary end in itself?
RK: Well, it’s a good question. It’s like asking, “What is the purpose of life?” In my mind, we will ultimately saturate all of the matter and energy in our area of the universe with our intelligence, and I suppose you could say that’s an end in itself. All of this dumb matter and energy around us will wake up and become sublimely intelligent. Then it will spread out to the whole universe at the fastest speed information can flow. And one could make an argument that it’s not going to take an infinitely long time because there may be other ways to get to other parts of the universe through shortcuts like wormholes, which physics has postulated. Eventually the whole universe will, essentially, wake up.
But isn’t it interesting that you never see cosmologists give any role to intelligence in the future destiny of the universe? Rather, they talk a lot about whether or not the universe will contract back to a big crunch or expand indefinitely, as if these sorts of mindless forces of physics are just going to endlessly grind on like a big dumb machine. Nowhere do they consider, “Now, wait a second, intelligence could spread through the universe and actually make an intelligent decision about what the destiny of the universe is, and even though the gravitational force and other forces might cause the universe to spin apart, the intelligent civilization infusing the whole universe will decide, ‘No, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to do something different.'”
WIE: Some scientists and cosmologists argue that the universe is already intelligent. But what you’re saying is that we will use technology to inject our own intelligence into the nonintelligent matter of the universe, that it’s a purely physical accomplishment.
RK: Exactly. And that’s a form of enlightenment. Because I would say that the whole universe is not intelligent at this point. But I think it will become intelligent through the process that I described.
WIE: How do you see that happening on a practical level? Can you envision it?
RK: Well, yes. We can state the fact that levels of intelligence far greater than our own are going to evolve within this century. We can’t entirely describe what that will be like because it will be, by definition, more intelligent than we are. As we move through three-dimensional molecular computing, we’re ultimately going to be organizing matter and energy in a very efficient way, down to the atomic level. In about twelve years, we’ll be able to compute very efficiently with these three-dimensional molecular structures, which actually are based on carbon, much like life is, but organized millions of times more powerfully. A one-inch tube of nanotube circuitry built out of carbon atoms would be a million times more powerful than the human brain. Using these incredibly small information-processing systems, which have the ability to reorganize matter, we’ll ultimately be able to convert most of the matter and energy in our area of the universe into very efficiently organized processes for running intelligence. And then, this intelligence will expand outward, almost like information, but it will actually be able to essentially convert and absorb into itself all the matter and energy that it encounters as it continues to spread outward into the universe.
“Two-way communication between electronics and biological neurons has already been demonstrated, and this new development will open up several interesting scenarios. One would be full immersion virtual reality, incorporating all of the senses. If I wanted to go into virtual reality, the nanobots would set down the signals coming from my real senses and replace them with the signals that my brain would be receiving if I were actually in the virtual environment, and then my brain would feel like it was in that environment. The virtual environment could be a re-creation of an earthly place—like the Taj Mahal or a Mediterranean beach—and incorporate the sounds, the three-dimensional visual appearance, the feeling of the warm, moist air on your face. It could also be some fantastic place that exists only in virtual reality. The design of these kinds of virtual environments will be a new art form. You will be able to go into these virtual environments with someone else and have any kind of encounter—from a sexual encounter to a business negotiation. You’ll be able to plug in and experience what it’s like to be someone else, experience their emotions, like the plot concept of the movie Being John Malkovich. Or you could relive archived experiences. Creating archived experiences that you can plug into will be another art form. Virtual reality won’t emerge suddenly in perfect form, but by 2029 it will be as compelling and convincing as real reality.”