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Could This Be Humanity's Last Century?: Many Predict Man Will Soon Merge With Machine

The Borg: From the Star Trek television series. The Borg represented a hybrid of humans and machines.
The Borg: From the Star Trek television series. The Borg represented a hybrid of humans and machines.

By Seth Shostak

OK, quick: Name a few important things that happened in the 11th century.

If you're not tenured in medieval studies, that may be tough, although several modestly notable events took place in those hundred years -- for example, the Battle of Hastings and the launch of the Crusades. When we look back a millennium, even the highest parapets of history become hard to discern. Nonetheless, those long-ago happenings dramatically altered the future.

But what about the 21st century? What will your kids and grandkids do that will still be important a thousand years from now?

Let me suggest that they may trump every previous generation. They may go beyond simply changing society, and possibly usher in the last act for Homo sapiens.

That may strike you as a less-than-sunny prospect, but only because you're missing the big picture. I'm not talking about the various self-destructive threats of the moment -- the ones that fill the papers and spark pontification on the nightly news. Yes, both terrorism and climate change are serious matters, but the former is manageable and frankly, so is the latter. Alleviating environmental catastrophe requires modifications of behavior. Hard, sure, but we're not talking about violating physics.

No, the three big things that I believe will take place in the 21st century are more profound, and not necessarily bad.

To begin with, we're finally going to understand biology at a molecular level. DNA's double helix was discovered a mere six decades ago, and now -- for hardly more than a kilobuck -- you can sequence the genome of your yorkie or yourself.

The relentless interplay of science and technology ensures that genomic knowledge will spawn a growing number of applications. Curing disease is one of these, and it's obviously desirable. But our efforts won't be limited to merely fixing ourselves; we'll also opt for improvement. You may hesitate to endorse designer babies, but hot-rodding our children is as much on the horizon as the morning sun.

Number two on my list of major 21st century developments is expanding into nearby space. We need more resources -- both acreage and raw materials -- unless we're happy to condemn our descendants to a limited lifestyle and unlimited war. You may worry about running out of oil, but that's not the resource that should really make you antsy. We're going to eat through the easily recoverable reserves of stuff like copper, zinc, and the platinum group metals in a matter of decades.

We can find more of these elements in asteroids, and already several companies are planning to do so. But nearby space could also provide unlimited real estate for siting the condos of the future. Everyone expects our progeny to establish colonies on the moon or Mars, but the better deal is to build huge, orbiting habitats in which you can live without a spacesuit. Think of scaling up the International Space Station a few thousand times. We can put unlimited numbers of people in such engineered environments, and sometime in this century we'll start doing that. The days of being confined to the bassinette of our birth are coming to an end.

The third thing you can expect before the year 2100 is the development of generalized artificial intelligence (GAI). In other words, machines that don't just play games like chess or Jeopardy, but can do the thinking required for any white-collar job, including all the ones at the top. And such machines won't necessarily be large. A synapse in your brain is a few thousand nanometers in size. A transistor on a chip is hundreds of times smaller. The hardware necessary for human-level smarts -- even today -- could fit in an iPad.

These are developments that -- over the long term -- will dwarf such quotidian concerns as politics, war, or economics.

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