I’m skeptical, though, about science-fiction scenarios played out in the virtual reality of our imaginations. The imagined futures of the past have all been confounded by boring details: exponential costs, unforeseen technical complications, and insuperable moral and political roadblocks.
Some apparently unstoppable technological progressions can in fact be frozen in place indefinitely. An expert in the 1950s would be shocked to learn that sixty years later air travel would be no faster and in many ways less pleasant and convenient. The reasons are banal but decisive: people on the ground don’t like sonic booms; jet fuel became expensive; airliners are easy to hijack. Likewise, seventeen years after Dolly the sheep, no human has been cloned, because of the potential harm to the first experimental fetus and the dubious benefit to anyone of bringing the experiment to completion. Nor are we genetically engineering our babies, because we have learned that single genes with large beneficial effects probably do not exist. Segways did not revamp urban transportation, because city councilors banned them from sidewalks. And remember the Google Glass Revolution?
Of course failures of the imagination cut both ways, and for exactly the same reason: real social revolutions depend on historical contingencies and psychological quirks and foibles that seldom enter into our technology-driven imaginations. Who foresaw, even a few years in advance, the women’s revolution, or the rise of social media?
I suspect that death will never be conquered (though our lifespans will continue to increase, at least for a while).Any cost-free longevity gene or easily tunable molecular pathway would have been low-hanging fruit for natural selection long ago. Senescence is baked into most of our genome because of the logic of evolution: since there’s a nonzero probability at any moment that an organism will die in an unpreventable accident, making genes for longevity moot, selection tends to sacrifice longevity for performance at every level of organization. This means we’d have to know how to tinker with thousands of genes or molecular pathways, each a tiny (and noisy) effect on longevity, to make the leap to immortality. The low-hanging fruit is in fact at the other end of the lifespan and income scale. We’ve made massive global progress in reducing maternal and infant mortality and premature death, but we’re not seeing a cohort of billionaire centagenarians.
Nor will we embed chips in our brains any time soon, if ever. Brains are oatmeal-soft, float around in skulls, react poorly to being invaded, and suffer from inflammation around foreign objects. Neurobiologists haven’t the slightest idea how to decode the billions of synapses that underlie a coherent thought, to say nothing of manipulating them. And any such innovation would have to compete against a free, safe, and intricately fine-tuned brain interface with a million-year head-start, namely eyes, ears, voice, and fingers.
It remains to be seen how far artificial intelligence and robotics will penetrate into the workforce. (Driving a car is technologically far easier than unloading a dishwasher, running an errand, or changing a baby.) Given the tradeoffs and impediments in every other area of technological development, the best guess is: much farther than it has so far, but not nearly so far as to render humans obsolete.
What about the spiritual and moral costs of a work-reduced world? Just as we tend to overestimate the inexorability of technological progress, we tend to underestimate human ingenuity when applied to social and political problems. Until the day when battalions of robots are inoculating children, delivering babies, and building schools in the developing world, or for that matter repairing the infrastructure and caring for the aged in ours, there will be plenty of work to be done. The same kind of ingenuity that drives progress in biology and robotics could be applied to the design of government and private-sector policies could match the idle hands with the undone work.
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