Thursday, February 17, 2005

The death of death?

The last time I wrote about Ray Kurzweil, famed inventor and futurist, it was to review his 2002 book The Age of Spiritual Machines. In that volume, Kurzweil predicted that by 2019 a $1,000 computer will match the processing power of the human brain. By 2029, people will have personal relationships with conscious machines, he said, and use them as companions, teachers, caretakers, and lovers.

Now Kurzweil is back with a new book, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, in which he predicts human physical immortality in 20 years. Genetic engineering and nanobot technology will keep the body ticking forever, he claims.

Kurzweil may not be right about immortality, but the curve of scientific knowledge and technological innovation will certainly continue to rise at an ever-increasing rate. By the end of this century, humans will possess powers for self-transformation unlike anything even the futurists dream.

We should be asking now: What is a human self? What, if anything, is the essential difference between an organism and a machine? Are constraints on human curiosity desirable or possible? Is the human species as we know it today the final destiny of cosmic evolution?

The old answers are not good enough, unless we want an unjust and increasingly dangerous world divided into the affluent (and long-lived?) secular few and the poor multitudes who console themselves with fundamentalist faiths.

Dogmatic rigidity, religious or secular, will get us nowhere. In his autobiography, the eminent biologist Erwin Chargaff warned against hubris of any stripe: "A balance that does not tremble cannot weigh. A man who does not tremble cannot live."