Let's not go back to nature

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    THE times, they are a-changin and a lot more quickly today than when Bob Dylan sang those words some 40 years ago. We are doubling the rate of technological innovation every 10 years. Great news for human development, youd have thought.

    Not everyone thinks so. Many people are fearful of this pace of progress in science and technology, and the way it is challenging basic ideas about the nature of human life. As a result they are doing their best to hold it up. They are fundamentalists secular, but capable of as much damage as their religious counterparts.

    Fundamentalism takes many forms, but they all resist the idea that human nature is changeable. Instead, its proponents are wedded to an unyielding view of humanity, tied to tradition and fearful of development. The forms that concern me here are fundamentalist humanism and naturalism, which take an extreme reverential view of human nature and of the natural world respectively and oppose any interference with them.

    Both movements are anti-technology, so the modern world must be an alarming place for them. There is no denying the extraordinary pace of development. Whereas the telephone took 50 years to be adopted by a quarter of the US population, the cellphone did that in just seven. Five years ago most people didnt use search engines; imagine that now. Greater changes are on the way. The use of RNA interference, which can turn genes off, and gene therapy, which can add new ones, will lead not just to designer babies but to designer baby boomers (something Im much more interested in). Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have designed a device the size of a blood cell that can find and destroy cancer cells in the bloodstream; within 25 years each of us could have millions of them in our bodies keeping us healthy. By the 2030s, we will be more non-biological than biological. Will that

    make us less human? I dont believe so. We have always extended our physical and mental reach with technology in a way that no other species has.

    The fundamentalists disagree. For an example of why they are dangerous, consider their opposition to the genetic engineering of cotton to remove the toxin gossypol from the seeds so that they can be eaten. This advance could help feed millions of people in climates where other food is hard to grow unless the naturalists disrupt it as they did golden rice, designed to provide vitamin A to those deficient in it, including hundreds of thousands who go blind every year as a result. Such Luddism is unfortunate, for it is a major obstacle to relieving suffering.

    The fundamentalists concerns have been exacerbated by the fact that the fruits of our technological progress are available to anyone with a computer. This is about the democratisation of power. The tools of creation are no longer restricted to organisations that can afford the hardware. Today a student can create a high-definition

    movie without leaving their bedroom; the founders of Google started with a couple of personal computers, and that company is now worth $150 billion. The negative side is that a bioterrorist can without much difficulty find the equipment and know-how to modify a biological virus to make it deadlier, more communicable and stealthier.

    This danger has led to a relinquishment movement that is calling for society to eschew technologies such as biotechnology, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. This is a bad idea, for three reasons. First, we would not receive the important benefits they will bring. Second, it would require a totalitarian system to implement. Third, and most importantly, it would drive these developments underground where they would be impossible to regulate, depriving scientists of the tools needed to defend against any threats.

    Rather than pull the plug on this kind of research, we need to ramp it up. We spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year trying to combat conventional terrorism yet invest relatively little in defending ourselves against bioengineered viruses. In a recent presentation to the directors and chief scientists of the National Institutes of Health, I proposed a $100 billion programme to develop a rapid response system based on RNA interference that could turn viruses off and vaccines that could target the antigens on the surfaces of viruses. My audience generally agreed that such a programme was feasible, but the funding so far has been insufficient.

    We are not going to relinquish our way out of this problem by stepping backwards. Weve met the threats from software viruses by developing a rapid response system and have been fairly successful: no one has ever succeeded in bringing down even a portion of the internet. We need to reassure people of the profound benefits that todays exponential advances in technology will bring, while developing defences against their abuse. And we should not let the fundamentalists posing as environmental or humanist activists hold us back.

    Ray Kurzweil is an inventor and futurologist. His latest book is The Singularity is Near (Penguin, 2006)

    Lets not go back to nature

    Such Luddism is unfortunate, because it is a major obstacle to relieving suffering

    Secular fundamentalists dont like the rapid rate of technological progress. Watch out, says Ray Kurzweil, they are as dangerous as the religious kind

    www.newscientist.com 3 March 2007 | NewScientist | 19

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