June 4, 2013

Convergence

I first got into climate change because I felt my kids and their kids faced a dangerous new set of conditions that would profoundly change their world. I wanted to warn them, to get them thinking about it. Well, I think it's safe to say that we are all thinking a bit more about climate change. But there are other changes coming at us fast, changes as equally profound as climate change, changes for which we are equally unprepared.

Let me ask you this. We are all over the genetic modification of food. Governments have responded to public concerns with regulations designed to control the ways in which companies pursue this technology. Yet we allow totally new life forms to be assembled using Lego-like blocks of DNA you can buy on the Internet, all virtually without regulation. Does than make sense to you?

Well, it's going on right now. Synthetic biology is a process whereby standardized DNA parts --thousands of which exist already as bio-bricks -- are cut and pasted together according to your specifications. You send the DNA sequence to a company, they assemble it, using sugar  as a raw material, freeze-dry the result, and ship it to your door. What could be simpler?

While all this is going on, other scientists are busily blurring the boundary between men and machines. We are becoming more integrated with our technology, and machines are acquiring the characteristics of living things. Futurists call this sort of thing convergence, a blurring of boundaries between things that used to be quite separate.

The other night, 60 Minutes had a piece on brain implants that would allow a person to think about moving a robotic arm and the robotic arm would respond to the thought. I would call that the ultimate convergence. And if we can do that today, think what will be possible within the lifetime of your children.

What could go wrong? Well, I can think of a couple of things right of the top of my head. Take the last innovation. Development was sponsored by the Department of Defense, to provide new hope to soldiers who have suffered devastating injuries. Who could argue with that? But, this is the military we are talking about. Who's to say they won't take it a step further and develop drone soldiers who can be directed by thoughts from humans sitting in a room in the Pentagon? And once we figure it out, the rest of the world won't be far behind.

What else? Biobricks are essentially being crowd-sourced. Anyone can build the damn things. Suppose some hacktivist, worried about the hazards posed by synthetic biology, decides to teach us a lesson by using biobricks to build something horrible, as an object lesson in what can go wrong. You think that won't happen? What's to stop someone from trying other than the promise of the biobrick manufacturers to do their best to not let it happen? Truth be told, I worry just as much about the things done in the name of good as I do the acts of evil men. Both types are indifferent in their own way to the consequences their actions will have.

Or maybe something jumps the tracks because well, shit just happens. Think of evolution as another word for unintended consequences. Not content to let evolutionary change sort things out over hundreds or thousands or even millions of years, we are churning out new combinations of living organisms and technology every other day. Nature makes lots of mistakes. You think we won't?

It's not like we can stop any of this. Like climate change, we are long past the point of avoidance. The kids have a new toy, and they are bound and determined to play with it. All we can do is adapt to the coming new world. That process begins with education and awareness. Call me crazy or obsessed, but I talk to my kids about this stuff all the time. They are seeing for themselves that what seemed like wild speculation just a few years ago is already yesterday's news.

The ethical dilemmas are well known. Many thoughtful people have been raising caution flags for years. But no one is paying much attention, just like no one was really paying all that much attention to climate change until the weather got undeniably crazy and people began connecting the dots on their own. Despite that, nothing much has been done on the governmental level to deal with what most folks now see as as increasingly urgent problem.

The only thing we have going for us is that climate changes over very long time spans. This is not the case with synthetic biology and man-machine convergence issues. Moore's Law is more relevant here, the idea that technology jumps every couple of years. Given the complete indifference of government and the general lack of awareness on the part of the public, it seems like we have little choice but to go along for the ride.

I leave you with this thought, courtesy of The Grateful Dead:
Trouble with you is the trouble with me,
Got two good eyes but you still don't see.

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