A group of the international community's brightest research minds will meet Thursday at the four-day Global Catastrophic Risk Conference at Oxford University in England. The conference, the first of its kind, will aim to provide thought provoking discussion and analysis on how risks could lead to the end of human life or the end of our planet as we know it.
Topics at the diverse summit will include issues such as nuclear and chemical terrorism and what mankind could do if a large asteroid was headed towards Earth. The final day of the conference will perhaps be the most exciting as it discusses how new technologies, including hypothetical super-intelligent robots, could destroy mankind and life as we know it.
Dr. Nick Bostrom, director of Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute, host of the symposium, is fearful that mankind may eventually create such a machine, capable of destroying its creators. He states, "Any entity which is radically smarter than human beings would also be very powerful. If we get something wrong, you could imagine the consequences would involve the extinction of the human species."
Bostrom leads a movement known as transhumanism, which dually aims to watch for potential threats in emerging technologies and conversely adopt radical emerging technologies to enrich human life. Bostrom and other transhumanist hope that one day biotechnology, molecular nanotechnologies, and artificial intelligence will merge man with machine, yielding humans that have increased cognitive abilties, are physically stronger, and emotionally more stable. This path, they say will lead to "posthumans", augmented beings so superior to traditional man, they are separate entity.
He describes, "We want to preserve the best of what it is to be human and maybe even amplify that. We will begin to use science and technology not just to manage the world around us but to manage our own human biology as well. The changes will be faster and more profound than the very, very slow changes that would occur over tens of thousands of years as a result of natural selection and biological evolution."
While Bostrom and his adherents are eager for such developments, they are unsure when technology will mature to the point where they are possible. Says Bostrom, "Maybe it will take eight years or 200 years. It is very hard to predict."
Others are more boldly predicting that man and machine may merge or biotechnology may radically genetically alter man within two decades. Says Dr. Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and futurist who calculates technology trends using what he calls the law of accelerating returns, "This will happen faster than people realize."
Dr. Kurzweil gained notoriety for predicting devices that would allow the blind to read text and the advent of the internet as a primary economy and lifestyle device in the 1980s, before either technology was very well known. Dr. Kurzweil has developed a new technological concept known as Singularity, a technology which he predicts.
Singularity, he says, will arise within a couple decades and will be "the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology, resulting in a world that is still human but that transcends our biological roots."
He adds, "There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality."
As real world processes are simulated in computers and biology and medical technologies shrink, Singularity will be approached, he believes. He believes that by the 2040s synthetic intelligence will be billions of times more advanced than even human biological intelligence, rendering our brains obsolete. He argues, "Our brains are a million times slower than electronics. We will increasingly become software entities if you go out enough decades."
Dr. Kurzweil says that modern gene therapies, organ growth research, stem cell efforts, and enzyme-enabling drugs are all examples of how man and machine are beginning to merge already. He says that what was once "hit or miss" technology, now can purposefully alter how our bodies operate. The emerging biotechnology revolution will yield thousands of miracle drugs capable of everything from slowing down the process of aging to reversing the onset of deadly diseases, like heart disease and cancer.
He says that by 2020, human bodies will be swimming with nanorobots. He points to current experiments, which are using nanorobots to cure type 1 diabetes and regrow spinal cords in mice. One researcher is developing a replacement for red blood cells known as respirocyte, which if it fully replaced human blood would allow a human to sprint at the level of an Olympic sprinter for 15 straight minutes without taking a second breath or stopping. It would also allow humans to act like whales, staying underwater for hours at a time, only occasionally surfacing for breaths.
Many other researchers are developing nanoparticles and tiny robots to locate and destroy cancer tumors. Some Parkinson's patients also already have tiny computers, shaped like peas implanted in their brains, which replace disease ravage neurons. These computers can have new software remotely downloaded without surgery, providing a literal "brain firmware update".
Dr. Kurzweil states, "Nanotechnology will not just be used to reprogram but to transcend biology and go beyond its limitations by merging with non-biological systems. If we rebuild biological systems with nanotechnology, we can go beyond its limits."
He believes the final step before the creation of the Singularity is the creation of an ultra-powerful artificial intelligence, or superintelligence, which will be able to quickly solve mankind's worst problems, including "environmental destruction, poverty and disease."
"A more intelligent process will inherently outcompete one that is less intelligent, making intelligence the most powerful force in the universe," he describes.
But he is also fearful that the creation may go wrong. He adds, "I think there are grave dangers. Technology has always been a double-edged sword."
Whether thinkers like Dr. Kurzweil and Dr. Nick Bostrom are prophetic or just crazy, they should yield and intriguing and thought provoking conference. Will robots destroy us; or will we merge with robots into superpowered beings? No one knows, but these researchers are willing to guess.