The Religion and Ethics News Weekly program on PBS recently interviewed Ray Kurzweil about his predictions for how humanity will change in the years ahead. The segment, entitled “Ethics of Human Enchancement” uses Kurzweil as its centerpiece. It even includes footage from Transcendent Man and The Singularity Is Near – full length documentaries about Kurzweil and his work. More important than the futurist’s involvement, however, is the questions that the program raises: will we augment our biology? If we do, what problems will it cause or solve? I’m not particularly satisfied with the answers presented in the video, but I am glad that national media programs are taking such discussions seriously. You can watch PBS’ presentation in its entirety in the video below.
For those familiar with concepts like exponential growth in intelligence, the Technological Singularity, and human enhancement, nothing in PBS’s program is particularly new. Viewers may recognize projects like Braingate, and brain implants that treat Parkinson’s from previous articles appearing on the Hub. Anyone who’s watched Transcendent Man, or read/watched The Singularity is Near knows considerably more about Kurzweil than is covered in these ten minutes. Why then, should we care about this news segment? Mostly because it’s on PBS.
“Ray Kurzweil may not be a household name…” The opening line really sums it up, and you can plug many different things in place of Ray Kurzweil’s name. The Singularity. Accelerating technology. Exponential growth. These topics simply aren’t part of the mainstream media discussion. It’s pretty revealing that we’re still relying on a science fiction film from 1999, The Matrix, to introduce audiences to the concept that we could eventually produce non-human intelligence. Referencing a decade old movie for explaining cutting edge science? Pretty lame if you think about it (of course I did it myself just a few weeks ago). Still, that’s where the national discussion is at the moment.
Thank goodness then that bio-ethics and human enhancement are getting more of a platform. This probably isn’t the most exposure the concepts have ever received, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. The choices we make today about implants (or genetic treatments) that augment humanity will have far reaching implications for years to come.
Which is why I’m a bit wary of these topics appearing in a forum like Religion and Ethics News Weekly. Don’t get me wrong, the program is great – 115 awards and counting – but it does place the debate in the tired old Science vs. Religion framework (just look at the way they juxtapose Kurzweil to Christian Brugger). The ethical issues surrounding human augmentation should concern you no matter what belief system you follow. Likewise, the very real dangers presented by augmenting technologies (whether they be nanotech, biotech, and/or machine) are something that need to be studied whether or not we think of such advancements as progress or witchcraft.
Ultimately I do believe that humans will create, or help give rise to, intelligence that matches or exceeds our own. I’m also pretty sure that we’ll find ways to enhance ourselves, and that the allure of doing so will encourage many to take advantage of such enhancements. I’m not sure what either of these implies about souls and spirituality and I’m very happy leaving such questions to philosophers and theologians. What I am concerned with is whether such creations will aid or injure humanity. I think either is a possibility and I suspect that which outcome occurs will depend greatly on how much time and effort we spend in preparing ourselves for such an event. To that end I hope we see many more of these discussions on PBS and other major networks. The effects of advancing technology will effect the entire world, and we may need the attention of the entire world to ensure that effect is a positive one.
The Religion and Ethics News Weekly has provided a transcript of the news segment above as well as videos for extended interviews for Ray Kurzweil and Christian Brugger.
[image and video credit: RE News Weekly]