What utopia can technology deliver?

Summary:Catch a glimpse of the future. A new government-sponsored report calls for harnessing the converging strands of science and technology to transform society and bring about a golden age. In 20 years. Really.

Technology has made enormous leaps in last 20 years. Looking back, I can see a progression of improvements that we could not easily have predicted. However, I can identify a consistent theme throughout that period that I call "faster, better, cheaper, smarter, smaller." The fact is, we have leveraged the effect of Moore's Law to produce increasingly powerful products.

But while we have become more mobile, we are still mostly tied to a keyboard. And while software is smarter, the promise of artificial intelligence and agents that intuit and respond to your needs remains unfulfilled.

In this context, I was intrigued to read a 405-page report from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Commerce that looks 20 years into the future. The report, with the hefty title "Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology, and Cognitive Science," includes contributions from more than 50 scientific leaders and policy makers.

I was a little thrown by part of the title--"Improving Human Performance"--thinking it might be about creating a super race. But the report has more noble ambitions.

In addition to compiling various futuristic scenarios, the report calls for harnessing the converging strands of science and technology to transform society and bring about a golden age: "Understanding of the mind and brain will enable the creation of a new species of intelligent machine systems that can generate economic wealth on a scale hitherto unimaginable. Within a half-century, intelligent machines might create the wealth needed to provide food, clothing, shelter, education, medical care, a clean environment, and physical and financial security for the entire world population. Intelligent machines may eventually generate the production capacity to support universal prosperity and financial security for all human beings. Thus, the engineering of the mind is much more than the pursuit of scientific curiosity. It is more even than a monumental technological challenge. It is an opportunity to eradicate poverty and usher in the golden age for all human kind."

The path to this utopian vision of the future is the synergistic combination of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science (under the acronym NBIC). Among the possible technological achievements envisioned are brain-to-brain interaction, direct brain control of devices via neuromorphic engineering, retarding the aging process, elimination of communications barriers due to disability or language, and invulnerable data networks.

At the more extreme and controversial end of the spectrum, the report predicts routine brain implants, political rights for robots (will they earn the right to vote in presidential elections?), and the capability for people to extend their personalities into cyberspace by uploading them to the "Solar System Wide Web."

The report also discusses the development of predictive science that could anticipate social changes and apply corrective actions, perhaps similar to the precogs in "Minority Report". It also envisions the capability to ingest megabytes of knowledge about any topic in moments by enhancing sensory perception, a la the "Matrix".

In a more pragmatic vein, convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and cognitive science could result in cosmetics that change with the user's moods, enhancing emotional expressiveness. I am not sure about the practical application of that feature, but clothing fabrics that adjust automatically to changing temperatures and weather would be nice to have. Embedded sensors and nanoscale robots that monitor your health and make appropriate adjustments to keep you in optimal condition would be great, especially if they could dramatically improve our health care system.

Solving all the world's problems through this convergence of science and technology requires a large stretch of the imagination, as do many of the concepts in the report. While I am fascinated by the science, the notion that "humanity would become like a single, transcendent nervous system, an interconnected 'brain' based in new core pathways of society," as suggested by the report's primary authors, is hard to buy.

We are still a society partly bent on self-destruction; our appetite for violence and reality TV remains intact. Advances over the next 20 years won't change human nature unless everyone gets gene therapy and we end up with a society of smiley faces. In fact, the report devotes an extensive chapter to the future of war and combat, which envisions a battlefield occupied by uninhabited combat vehicles and soldiers with enhanced physical and mental capacities. So much for utopia.

I spoke with one of the authors, Dr. James Canton, to get a better understanding of the goals of the report. Canton, who is president of the Institute for Global Futures, a San Francisco-based think tank, called the report a work in progress.

"This is an optimal view of the future, not necessarily a Realpolitik of the future," Canton said. "We are trying to envision what we want to design for the future world of the next 20 years. If we don't put a stake in the ground and take innovation leadership, we can't work toward it. If we have a vision, we have the ability to transform large social systems. We are at the beginning of the process, but we want to give people a heads-up with the report and invite them to come along for the ride."

While the report advocates a utopian vision, Canton noted that technical prowess doesn't guarantee peaceful coexistence of humanity. "We are hopeful technology will [lead to] longer and better quality of life and a more level playing field," Canton said. "But we will more realistically have multiple, coexisting futures. Parts of the world, like today, won't allow certain degrees of human enhancement."

It appears the goal of the report is to create an international initiative and funding to exploit the concepts in the report. It might be hyperbolic to say, as the report does, that nothing less than the future of humanity is at stake. But if you look at the potential that technology has to improve our lives, establishing a focus and framework for dialog is an essential step. Numerous complex ethical, legal, and policy issues will need to be resolved. The more those issues are anticipated and debated, the better chance for a successful resolution.

If you want to know what's in store for the future and participate in the dialog, without reading a few dozen science fiction books, the Converging Technologies report is an important document. Galvanizing support for the research and development initiatives in service of creating a better society, however, will be an ongoing battle for the soul of technology.

What do you think? Is this the stuff of science fiction films or a valuable vision of humankind's potential? Join our TalkBack forum or e-mail me at dan.farber@cnet.com.

Topics: Processors, CXO, Emerging Tech, Enterprise Software, Hardware, Health, IT Employment

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