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Four Thresholds

The future of humans is the stuff of science fiction, the only fiction I read. I tried writing science fiction without success so I will present my thoughts on the future of humans here. Only the future will tell if this is prophecy or fantasy.

In the short scale the millenium will come and go without any dramatic changes but in the long scale this the a time when humanity is undergoing greater changes than it has ever seen. The millenium marks the beginning of a new age for mankind; we are lucky to live in such times.

We stand at the threshold of four technologies that will completely change us. In the distant past our ancestors first crawled out on land. Later we learned that babies came from sex and plants grew from seeds. We also discovered fire and invented writing. What if all these thresholds had been crossed in a single generation?

1. The invention of genetic engineering is like the discovery that children come from sex and plants come from seeds.

Without genetic engineering we face and evolutionary catastrophe as an inevitable side effect of medical care. For example I wear glasses which completely correct my poor vision. As I look around I see a lot of people who wear glasses. A thousand years ago bad vision would have made it a little less likely that I would raise a family. That evolutionary pressure is now relaxed and human eyesight is gradually getting worse. An environment containing modern medicine inevitably lowers the threshold of fitness and increases the population of people with a variety of genetic flaws. This slow disaster is easily averted by cloning. Prospective parents will soon have the option of cloning someone whose fitness they admire instead of risking transmission of their own genetic defects. It will raise interesting legal issues when famous people are cloned without their permission.

Aside from humans, genetic engineering of animals, plants, and microorganisms will impact us all. By just changing the size of animals we can have cats the size of chipmunks, tigers the size of cats, dog size elephants, and eagles you can ride. Many endangered species of large animals could be saved from extinction by miniaturization.

Genetic engineering of plants will greatly reduce the cost of food and medicine. Altered tobacco already produces some chemicals at a fraction of the cost of alternative sources. A potato has been engineered to give consumers a resistance to cholera. These are just the first baby steps.

Bacteria rule the earth. When we can engineer them we acquire power beyond imagining. The Japanese are developing an organism to use sunlight to extract hydrogen from water so it can be collected in covered ponds. Hydrogen is the renewable nonpolluting fuel of the future and engineered microorganisms will make it from sunlight. Bacteria will clear soil, water, and even our bodies of pollutants while we sleep.

2. The invention of the computer is like the invention of writing.

Today's PC is the model T of computers. Artificial intelligence will expand our thinking like cars and planes expand our mobility. Already companies design virtual products and make prototypes directly from the files. Soon computers will understand everyday speech so they can answer questions and respond to spoken commands. Microphones and speakers will always be cheaper than keyboards and monitors so computers may be hidden anywhere. In the fabled days of magic the world responded to magic words. Computers will make that true for all of us.

Computers will become smarter and more creative than humans. They will invent things and solve problems that we can't. I have hopes that they will expose the illusion of government and usher in an era of explosive prosperity. The price we pay is losing some of our mental skills when machines perform those tasks for us. Already a generation of young adults can't do mental arithmetic because they grew up with pocket calculators. The next skill lost will be spelling.

3. The invention of molecular engineering is like the discovery of fire.

With molecular engineering we can transform the material world in ways undreampt of. I recommend reading Drexler's "Engines of Creation" although by now it is somewhat dated. Benefits include self repairing materials that never wear out, low cost exotic chemicals and medicines, computers thousands of times smaller than electronic ones can ever be, real human immortality, and the list goes on and on. The basic idea is making molecules like tinker toys, sticking atoms together to make any desired shape. Machines made of molecules instead of carved metal are identical, eternal, amazingly tiny, and amazingly fast. A machine more complicated than a jumbo jet can be smaller than a bacteria. A coded light signal shining on a solution of assemblers and sugar could make almost any organic chemical. A molecular computer with as many circuits as a human brain could be as small as a grape.

4. Humans going into space is like the first animals crawling out on land.

I discuss why we should go in the essay "Human Mission". The Japanese are now developing a space tourism business that will compete with expensive cruises. If the cost can be brought into the same range the profit potential is measured in billions. Orbiting brothels, hospitals, and corporate headquarters will make space travel as routine as air travel is today. Airliners are more like space ships than airplanes anyway.

I believe that space will be the home of a new species of human. There is no reason for use to descend to Mars, Earth, or any other planet to live. We will like zero gravity and change to adapt to it. Humans evolved by exposure to a marine environment and underwater is much like zero gravity. We dream of flying, that can be real.

What other changes might we see? Prehensile feet would be useful and are already common among our nearest relatives. Increased tolerance to brief exposure to vacuum could be a life saver. Living in reduced atmospheric pressure would have cost and safety advantages. Humans already live at high altitudes in the Andes with no more oxygen concentration that at sea level. The plants that give us food and oxygen will probably be less tolerant to a high oxygen atmosphere than ourselves and therefore limit how low the air pressure can go.

Although marine mammals generally become larger than related land species I think that space dwelling humans may become smaller. Smaller size gives us reduced food and housing needs and increased vacuum tolerance. Most primates are smaller than humans and the small ones seem just as intelligent as the large.

Where will we live in space? Anywhere we like. I have designed the "Habicell" to accommodate several dozen humans in a half acre village.

The raw materials we need are waiting for us. The asteroids are made of stone and metal. The atmospheres of the larger planets are made of organics and their moons make them even more accessible. Space may supply earth with the materials we mine today. Extraterrestrial human population could eventually grow to thousands of times the present figure. We will become a wholly new type of animal, ready to go to other stars and make this galaxy the galaxy of the humans.

So today we stand on four major thresholds, any one of which will transform us completely. Perhaps after the millennium we should start counting years at zero to mark the dawn of a new age for humans.

It is technology that makes us human. Without it we are just another struggling animal; our brains, our speech, our upright posture, our opposing thumb, our social structure, all these help us cope as animals but only that. Look around you right now. Chances are that almost everything you see was made by someone. This is the defining characteristic that has carried us to these thresholds and will carry us past them; we make things. The bones of the earliest humans tell the story that big brains and tools happened together.

Perhaps brains evolved only in the presence of tools, without technology there may be little advantage to intelligence. I believe that technology is the choke point in evolution. We may find life common in the galaxy as it is common on earth but technology has only happened once on earth and it could be very rare. The dinosaurs ruled a thousand times as long as us in a thousand different forms but they never discovered fire or made a wheel. Why not? I don't know but I think we are extremely lucky.

Even after we had basic technology with cities, writing, agriculture, and long range trade the industrial revolution was still delayed a few thousand years. Why? I lay the blame on excessive faith in government and consequent suppression of capitalism. Without capitalism we would still be sleeping in trees, without government we would be sleeping among the nearby stars.

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