I believe that the next big technological revolution (on the same scale as computers, petrochemicals, electricity, steam, etc.) will be a transhuman/biotechnology/AI revolution.

I clump all these possible technological paths together as "artificial life", because the specifics don't really matter that much. I don't know which specific kind of artificial life will win out, but I think that even the slow, conservative biotechnology is going to have a massive impact as it continues growing apace.

It's important to remember that I'm talking about trends that will take decades to fully play out, but we are on the cusp of some huge changes driven by technology.

For instance, we're already able to make pluripotent stem cells from adult cells, and scientists recently created mouse babies from two mother rats. It's just a matter of engineering to make it so any two people you have arbitrary tissue samples can reproduce.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, especially as the decades roll on.

More importantly, there are several emerging technologies all in more or less this same space, and the synthesis of them all could be much more powerful than any one of them alone

For instance, AI is growing in capability in hard to predict ways. The current machine learning methods aren't generally intelligent, but we have no idea how close we are to general intelligence

More importantly, these new methods add new capabilities to our toolbelt that we either didn't have or were very expensive

In particular, modern machine learning methods are excellent at figuring out the complex patterns that exist in, say, biology. Having these new AI tools could accelerate biotechnology research, and can be part of the engineering to create systems that can cope with these complexities to do otherwise impossible tasks.

For instance, traditional cancer treatments use highly destructive scattershot techniques because coming up with the right treatment before the patient is dead is not possible.

If you had unlimited time and money, you could do a bunch of studies on one person's cancer. How does it differ from the host? You could eventually select (or develop) a minimally damaging drug that kills their cancer but not the host. Then you could deploy the treatment and repeat this lengthy process whenever the cancer recurs.

Of course, that's not realistic. It's just now getting to the point where we can get the raw data reasonably cheaply, but processing it in time?

Computers and AI techniques make that rapid processing of case-specific biological data possible.

Yes, there is a "cure for cancer" just around the corner. It's more accurate to say it's a technique for curing arbitrary cancers, rather than some kind of miracle drug, but the end result is the same.

I first heard about this in 2009 at a bioinformatics conference, and it's actually happening. It's called precision oncology:

Like many things in this space, there's multiple horses in the race. Immunotherapy is also rapidly emerging in clinical practice, and it also has great potential.

The two techniques are potentially even more powerful together, with immunotherapy providing a powerful general mechanism to kill the cancer, and precision oncology ensuring effectiveness and safety.

Think about that, you can take a treatment knowing it will work and be safe for you.

But wait, why stop with cancer? Aren't these same ideas applicable to all infectious diseases as well, if we can get fast enough turnaround?

Yes, yes they are.

If we were a few decades ahead, we would probably be able to treat COVID-19 right now. In fact, it will likely be possible within our lifetime to eradicate infectious disease. Flus, colds, STDs, childhood illnesses, COVID/SARS...all wiped out for good, or at least pushed to wild animal reservoirs with rare human interactions.

Yet again though, this is just the tip of the iceberg if we're looking at a time horizon of several decades or longer.

For instance, while a lot of focus is giving to using CRISPR to permanently modify genes, it can also be used to precisely make changes to gene transcription.

Even without changing any DNA, you can reprogram the body to follow arbitrary instructions. If we can figure out what to tell the body, we can cure pretty much anything and make any modifications we want.

AI is key to the "figure out what to tell the body" part of that equation, especially since it may differ from person to person and situation to situation.

Having fast feedback and tools to correct mistakes will also vastly speed up feedback. Playing around with our biological programming today is dangerous, but when we can see that things are going wrong and fix mistakes on the fly, then a whole world of biohacking and bioengineering emerges.

Eliminating cancers and infections becomes trivial

This is when things accelerate. If we have these technologies that give us unprecedented control over our biology, then we start work on engineering ourselves.

It's hard to tell how this would evolve, because it's hard to predict what is low hanging fruit and what is really hard to accomplish, but some things that might emerge early on:
* The ability to trigger wakefulness and sleepiness on command
* The elimination of sleep
* The elimination of aging
* Bigger brains with more processing power

Increasing human intelligence will probably be a difficult task, but this line of research would likely start out as a therapy for the special needs. Once techniques for increasing special needs intelligence to high levels is accomplished, it will probably lead to clear lines of research for boosting normal intelligence to high intelligence and boosting high intelligence further.

More smart people and higher intelligence would mean we would be able to figure out further refinements faster.

Quick aside: while concerns of this kind of intelligence boosting being hijacked for just the super-wealthy are legitimate, if you want a more egalitarian world this line of research is a good thing.

Traits like intelligence, strength, and beauty are unevenly distributed across the population, and no amount of redistribution can change that, because you can't redistribute these traits.

These technologies can equalize intelligence and beauty, while also amping up their levels to new heights.

Also, the biggest danger isn't the super wealthy keeping these technologies and traits for themselves, but rather forcing their workers into a "biological contract" which inserts traits like submissiveness and loyalty which makes the workers easier to control.

After all, wouldn't they want an endless supply of smart, beautiful slaves?

Of course, this issue could also become irrelevant in humans if general AI develops faster than biotechnology and cybernetics...

Anyway, my point here is that the struggle to control the future is a separate issue from the technical progress.

For instance, a smarter general population (rolled out in an attempt to create a more productive workforce) could easily turn out to be impossible for a minority elite to control any longer. Once the genie is out of the bottle it could lead to vast improvements to the egalitarianism of our situation.

Back to my original point though, although what I'm talking about is still largely sci-fi (except the cancer stuff, which I now realize is way further ahead of what I thought, just goes to show what having adequate funding can do), it's not really that out there. This is coming one way or another, so we should be preparing for it.

Other quick side note: it's also important to remember that the technical progress will happen almost regardless of what any one nation thinks. The same sex mice babies were developed by Chinese researchers.

Stopping research requires international cooperation.

If there's practical implications to research, it makes it even harder to stop. Countries will want it for the comparative advantage it provides, companies for the potential profit, and individuals will support it for various reasons.

So it's very important for us to look ahead at what's coming in biotechnology and other artificial life, much like how early computing pioneers looked ahead and were able to create norms in computing which kept things from going in quite as cyberpunk a direction as it could have gone.

As bad as the situation with computers and the Internet is, it could be so much worse without the distributed architecture of the Internet, the open source legal structures, or the openness of the PC platform.

When the future of our brains and bodies are at stake, rather than "just" computers and networks. The stakes could never be higher.

One last thing: it really is important that there is more than one possible technology involved.

I spent almost the entire time talking about biotechnology (and you can find good documentaries that go into even more detail like "Unnatural Selection") because it's the surest bet.

Meanwhile, cybernetics and AI are also going strong. Merging man with computer or just outright making life out of computers could progress shockingly fast, or they could end up not delivering in the near future.

Show newer

@urusan assuming we don't cause a societal collapse in some form or another it could certainly happen and will be interesting to see where technology goes with it.

@urusan Couldn't you also just tell the cancerous cells to stop being cancerous, instead of killing them?

@wizzwizz4 Yes, but that's more technically challenging.

It might eventually be the preferred method, since it's even less damaging, but as long as you catch cancers early it's not really a big deal.

Speaking of which, detecting cancer early is also much easier with these tools. You can detect pre-cancerous cells long before they become cancerous and take early action to prevent it from progressing any further. Even if it does progress to cancer, you could detect it while it's just a few cells

Sign in to participate in the conversation

Fosstodon is an English speaking Mastodon instance that is open to anyone who is interested in technology; particularly free & open source software.