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World-Changing, Far-Future Technologies are Nearer than You Think

The so-called "Five Horsemen" technologies that can and will reshape the world and humanity's impact on it -- nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics, information technology and applied cognitive science -- are approaching rapidly enough that the time has come to seriously consider how to incorporate these technologies into a sustainable future.

Many discussions of the social and environmental implications of technology revolve around the Five Horsemen -- the core technologies that, individually and collectively, are shaping the world: nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics, information and communication technology, and applied cognitive science.

Obviously, the environmental and sustainability discourses need to respond to the many challenges this advancing technological frontier presents: significantly extended average lifespan; continued restructuring of "natural" systems such as biodiversity, and the carbon and nitrogen cycles; global climate change. More significantly, perhaps, for the first time in human history it is not just the external environment, but the human itself, that is becoming a design space.

While the specific challenges posed by such foundational technological change are unpredictable, it is nonetheless possible to identify three obvious characteristics of the emerging anthropogenic world; recognizing them can facilitate our somewhat limited ability to respond to this anthropogenic world ethically, rationally, and reasonably.

The first is complexity. We are used to thinking of complex systems in both static (number of components and linkages between them) and dynamic (interaction among components and linkages, and among systems, over time) domains. Beyond that, however, the emerging world increasingly couples natural and built systems to human social and cultural systems (called "wicked systems," a term of art).

Wicked systems are profoundly unstable, because they display reflexivity -- that is, they are rapidly and unpredictably auto-catalytic and self-referential -- and they display intentionality, or human will, in some form. Thus, for example, history is a series of events that may seem orderly in retrospect, but cannot be predicted a priori -- who could have predicted a Pol Pot, a Milosevic, a Hitler, a Stalin?

The importance of this, of course, is that many "natural" systems are increasingly becoming more like wicked systems as they become dominated by human dynamics. Important elements of the carbon and nitrogen systems are clearly affected by human policy and economic decisions. Biology as a whole is rapidly becoming commoditized, as organisms are translated into genetic and metabolic information which is then transformed by the legal system into intellectual property, which is part of the human economic system -- biology becomes a social science. Finally, complexity is augmented by the global scale and interconnectedness of the integrated human/built/natural systems that characterize the anthropogenic Earth. Our personal and institutional capabilities are currently entirely inadequate to comprehend, much less rationally interact, with this level of complexity.

But there are other characteristics that are just as daunting. Prime among these is the accelerating rate of technological evolution, which has also swept far beyond individual and institutional capabilities to even perceive what's happening. Cognitive enhancement via second and even third generation pharmaceuticals; external helmets that read thoughts and can project them to avatars in virtual reality (already on the market); direct brain-to-device interfacing via wireless technologies that enable monkeys to keep robots in Japan running on treadmills, reported earlier this year -- the gee-whiz individual stories are legion. But far more importantly, the framework for these stories is an acceleration of technological evolution that integrates across domains in unpredictable and powerful ways, and is ever ahead of our understanding and institutional capabilities.

Finally, there is the issue of radical contingency, arising not just from complexity and accelerating technological evolution, but from the critical point that it is the human itself, in ways heretofore unimaginable, that is becoming a design space. The implications of this dramatic integration of the technological into the human are profound.

For example, the argument rages on about whether space exploration should be "manned" or "unmanned." This argument is obsolete, because, as the monkey experiments show, integration of the robotic and the human into a spatially dispersed entity is an increasingly probable scenario. What we should send to Mars is neither "human" nor "robot," but something synergistic and new, the human extended across spatial domains. And when was the last time a sustainability conference explored not just saving nature from humans, but redesigning humans to make more efficient use of nature? Obviously, such scenarios are highly speculative in the short term. But increasingly, as the human becomes design space, virtually everything becomes contingent.

In the face of these characteristics, the tired ideologies and certainties of the past fail. A modern environmentalism must move dramatically beyond current comfortable posturing and rigid certitude -- ironically, perhaps towards instantiating what Stuart Brand said many years ago: "we are as gods, and we might as well get good at it."

St. Petersburg horseman photo CC-licensed by Flickr user thisisbossi

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