It started with a bang

Alpa Somaiya|23 May 2019
It started with a bang

Since the Big Bang, the universe has been continuously transforming. In the here and now, however, biological evolution seems to be falling behind technology. Some claim that technology will bring about an entirely new era of evolution, but what does this mean for our future?

The common theme running through most definitions of evolution is that it is a “gradual” change. Even though the change may be gradual, it has brought into existence a world of astounding things – the appearance of life and the conscious mind, and of course technology, the power of which now exceeds the power of those who created it: us.

The problem is that when we design constructs that we can no longer manage, we arguably lose control of our future. As Jonathon Sacks says, “technology gives us power, but it does not and cannot tell us how to use that power.” Are we at the stage that Albert Einstein warned us when cautioning mankind about the technology that allowed us to create the atomic bomb: “Our world faces a crisis as yet unperceived by those with the power to make great decisions for good or evil. The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.”

Evolution is an exceedingly slow process. It’s a hit-and-miss affair in which DNA accumulates information through random errors in replication, some of which just happen to work to the organism’s benefit in the environment they find themselves. But now, it seems, technology has given us the ability to speed things up a bit and take matters into our own hands.

To explore where we might end up, let’s first see how we arrived where we are now by taking a little trip back to the very beginning. The 13.8-billion-year history of the universe condensed into a single year!

Technology evolution

In the beginning

The Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago. Fast forward through time, to the emergence of DNA, single-celled organisms, multi-celled organisms, fungi, fish, plants, amphibia, reptiles, dinosaurs, and of course the earlier “versions” of humans, to a mere 200,000 years ago, when we finally reach the emergence of Homo sapiens – our own species. Just like all other species that exist on Earth today, we are the product of millions of years of adaptation.

Over time, humans gradually evolved to have a large brain, the ability to use tools and developed superior learning abilities. However, we still stood resolutely in the middle of the food chain. At least we did until about 50,000 years ago, when we reached what has been called “the great leap forward.” This was a spectacular change that had, and continues to have, profound consequences. From this moment on, human culture started to change incredibly rapidly – humans started to ritually bury their dead, create clothes from animal hides, and develop complex hunting techniques. Suddenly, we found ourselves at the top of the food chain.

Generally, changes in pecking order occurred over millions of years, giving the ecosystem time to catch up, to develop checks and balances, preventing those at the top from causing too much damage. In stark contrast, humans rose to the top so quickly that the ecosystem – and humans themselves – had no time to adjust.

Now what?

As noted by Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, for most of our time on Earth, we have been hunters and gatherers; it has shaped our social and psychological characteristics. As we’ve noted, evolution is a notoriously slow process. But now, it seems, we may be at a crossroads of human evolution. Are we ready – psychologically, socially, ethically, religiously, politically – for what these changes may bring?

Humans’ desire to become more than we are spans millennia. Think back to the stories of the ancient Greeks. Remember Icarus and Daedalus? They made themselves wings so they could escape imprisonment in Crete. And what about all those quests for Fountains of Youth? Our wish to become more than human is not a new one, first being influenced by the divine, and now by culture.

To use a computing analogy, culture has been the software that has been driving human progress. Now, it seems, we have the technology to upgrade our hardware – our bodies and our brains. Have we now become independent of our biology? Are we asking natural selection to move aside to make way for technological selection and engineered design?

Take for example Neil Harbisson, the world’s first official cyborg. He seems to be a regular guy until you notice the antenna rising from the back of his skull. Neil was born with a rare condition called achromatopsia, which means he cannot see colors. His antenna, which ends in a fiber-optic sensor that hovers right above his eyes, has changed that. It picks up the colors in front of him, and a microchip implanted in his skull converts their frequencies into vibrations and then into sounds, so Neil can “hear” colors. He also has a second implant – a Bluetooth communication hub – so his friends can send him colors through his smartphone.

The remarkable thing about Neil’s antenna is that it also gives him an ability that no-one else in the world has – he can sense infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths. By augmenting his biological self, Neil has exceeded the boundary of ordinary human skills.

The future?

A quick scroll through Google will show you that human progress is getting quicker and quicker. More advanced societies can progress at a faster rate than less advanced societies precisely because they are more advanced. Experts from the fields of nanotechnology, biology, information technology, and cognitive science all agree on the incredible potential of technological evolution finally overtaking and directing biological evolution.

We’re already struggling with the implications of technology on human development: genetic modification, stem-cell research, the implantation of biocompatible computer chips. Are we going to blend ourselves with machines in extraordinary ways? Will natural-born humans become an endangered species? Where are humans as a species headed?

The possibilities this will bring are mind-boggling: creating the technology to reverse human aging, curing disease and hunger, and even mortality, and reprogramming the weather to protect life on Earth. Crucially, the AI revolution we see is not simply about computers getting smarter and faster, it also brings together the innovations in the life and social sciences. Browse through the news, and it’s obvious that the biotech and infotech revolutions are merging into a power that will allow us to restructure not only our economies and societies, but also manipulate and reshape our bodies and minds. Who knows what the consequences of this will be, because let’s face it, we have always been better at inventing tools than using them wisely.

 

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About the author

Alpa Somaiya

Alpa Somaiya

Senior copywriter/Editor

From science to health research to fintech, Alpa is a self-confessed jack-of-a-few trades. When not despairing about the use of the Oxford comma, she enthusiastically collates, translates and disseminates information for your reading pleasure, and with the hope that we all learn a little something along the way.

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