Saturday, February 28, 2009

Technology as an Outgrowth of Human Biology

“Perhaps it is always hard to see the bigger impact while you are in the vortex of a change. Failing to understand the consequences of our inventions while we are in the rapture of discovery and innovation seems to be a common fault of scientists and technologists.” (Joy 4) Bill Joy could imagine a war fought between, not human enemies, but the machines created by them. It’s not hard to see how a dystopian future like James Cameron’s The Terminator arises, where humans fights an ever-loosing battle against the very machines created to protect them. Joy seems to think this dystopian future is not only reasonable, but inevitable, and fast approaching. Joy believes that we are so accustomed to the dominance of technology in modern life that we will not even be aware when machines take over virtually everything around us, producing a malignant outcome.

While I do foresee a day where machines automate many aspects of everyday life, I do not think we will enter that era without caution. Enough science fiction has been written in the last 100 years to scare anyone into at least having a “kill all the machines” button or some other fail-safe(s). Instead of this world-ending scenario, more jobs held by humans now will be automated and run by machines in the future for the sake of efficiency and accuracy. While jobs may be lost to technology we are in no risk of creating a self-aware, out-of-control, machine race destined to take over the world.

Why should something like a superior “gray goo” of nanobots suddenly arise? If we look into the past for answers to the future –much like historians do—we will find that technology and science are slow moving phenomena; we haven’t just discovered something that would or could take over the world that quickly. Much like evolution, technological advances take a lot of time.

From my experience as a chemistry student, technology and human nature are linked through the evolutionary process. If there is one thing nature is good at it is weeding, sifting, and culling out those life forms that cannot adapt to their environment and handle change. Before we had what would be called life on earth, there was a complex stew of chemicals in the planet’s atmosphere. Over the course of millions of years these chemicals reacted with one another forming products that would randomly find other substances and continued to bond and react with them. This idea is a large-scale version of what happens in our bodies every second of the day. In essence, our bodies are a laboratory of chemical reactions occurring constantly. Thus, the human body is an expression of biological technology, keeping the chemicals that must react in close proximity to one another so the desired reactions can occur in maximum efficiency and precision. Nature is an intricate and complex technology. In fact modern, human-created technology is often modeled after nature because of its exquisite precision. Bioengineers are now able to completely sequence human DNA in the laboratory, thus producing information on how diseases are genetically transferred.

However, there are still processes that nature still does better. An example comes from one of the five basic senses, sight. It is very difficult for modern computers to see something and recognize it like human eye. Spectroscopic technologies –used to qualify and quantify molecular structure—are actually less sensitive than our eyes. . This means that the reactions occurring in our vision are actually more advanced than the most sophisticated machines we have for viewing molecules.
So how is it that our eyes are more sophisticated than these advanced spectroscopic machines used to view such tiny molecules and atoms? A better question is how isn’t it? Nature has had millions of years to test, reject, retest, reject, etc… We have only around 200 years since the Industrial Revolution and modern science. Granted, human beings are doing a phenomenal job replicating and manipulating the natural world through science at a more accelerated pace. The irony is that as mankind continues to make technological advances so too does nature because human beings are a product of nature. If nature were conscious it would be thinking: “I did a pretty good job designing humans, they’ve invented so much.” Human kind coming from nature, suggests that it is part of our evolutionary destiny to continue to invent and push the technological limits just as nature has done for so long before us.

“Unfortunately, as with nuclear technology, it is far easier to create destructive uses for nanotechnology than constructive ones. Nanotechnology has clear military and terrorist uses, and you need not be suicidal to release a massively destructive nanotechnological device - such devices can be built to be selectively destructive, affecting, for example, only a certain geographical area or a group of people who are genetically distinct.” (Joy 6)

Bill Joy speaks of modern scientific and technological advancements as deadly. But it is impossible to isolate a single technological advancement and truly say: “This has no benefit to mankind.” For if we were never to discover even the most terrible technologies it would mean to not know of their terrible power. Being aware of the power behind technology is part of what drives scientists forward into the unknown. Take the nuclear age. At first glance it seems that all that came out of it was a weapon that could and has killed millions of people. But even this evil invention has its benefits. Nuclear power plants are one of the most effective, efficient, and clean ways to create power for millions of people and if it were not for scientists’ ability to harness the power over the atom, this technology would never be feasible. Yes, it is important to monitor technology and not let anything get out of hand, but to stop searching for new and improved methods to anything is to remove human curiosity, a major factor that makes us human beings. I cannot disagree more with the thought of a stagnant world with no inventions or innovations happening. Imagine a world where nothing new is being created-- all technology and innovation have halted. That world would be stuck in a primitive era, in defiance of the laws of nature. The force of the human intellect dictates the evolution of technological processes. Unfit and defective technological inventions are constantly being eliminated, just as nature culled out life forms that could not survive.

So should nature just stop? Can the human mind just stop? If we are to stop making technological advancements how will we cure diseases and save lives? There is no way the world could continue without some form of technological advancement. The phrase “nature always finds a way” comes to mind when describing this. The old ways never last; the new and fresh always grow and become more aware, in turn creating yet another generation that will become more aware and more sophisticated. That last sentence could be applied to any form of life on the planet and can also be applied to human creations as well. We, like the evolutionary process, make mistakes in our innovation and when mistakes are made problems arise from them. But that doesn’t mean we should stop all together! That eliminates the idea of learning and growing all of which I argue are part of our genetic code and the natural technology, evolution.

In conclusion, it is my view as a scientist that the impulse to create a technological world is embedded in human biology--a result of our intrinsic connection between our evolution in nature, our intelligence, and our instinct to survive, control, and dominate our environment. We are built to invent, innovate, and unfortunately fail sometimes. But like nature we dust ourselves off and continue inventing. Unfortunately, it’s awful to see such deadly inventions as the atom bomb, but without that science how would we predict and prevent other nuclear disasters from occurring? We can’t. Technology like human beings is part of nature and we owe everything to technology, because if nature hadn’t found a way to push onward, we wouldn’t exist.

1 comment:

Adam Johns said...

Your first several paragraphs establish a relatively clear, although rather general, argument. I don't think you're working with Joy very well, though; your argument is specifically in response to him, but you aren't offering any responses to the *detailed* reasons he offers for his fears. For instance, you discuss science and technology as slow-moving, without any attention to his contrary experience (in fact, you have no details to offer in response to his!)

The fourth paragraph is very interesting, but also scattered - it is, for instance, unclear how you would define "technology," although your ideas are provocative even when lacking clarity.

The example of vision was good, of course, but also lacked in details, and had no citations...

Look at this passage: "Human kind coming from nature, suggests that it is part of our evolutionary destiny to continue to invent and push the technological limits just as nature has done for so long before us." The idea is fine, but this is a paragraph that, although interesting, is *full* of generalizations, with no specifics, no details, no citations - this is an essay in which your only evidence is your personal feelings on the subject.

The next paragraph, where you return to Joy, is a dramatic example of your use of generalization. Take this line: "Bill Joy speaks of modern scientific and technological advancements as deadly. But it is impossible to isolate a single technological advancement and truly say: 'This has no benefit to mankind.'" Joy, of course, neither says nor hints that any of these technologies have no benefits; to the contrary, he thinks they have many benefits which are overwhelmed by their intense dangers. You end this paragraph arguing against a strawman - a nonexistent version of Joy who opposes all technological advancement. You are paying *no* attention to the details of Joy's essay at this point.

The last couple paragraphs are more of the same.

Overall: Your broad area of interest, on technology as a part of (human) nature, is good. I would have liked to see a more specific, focused argument - although I suppose your focused argument is something like "Joy is wrong." There is a *fundamental* problem, though. You ignore all of the relevant details of Joy's essay, and include no other evidence of any kind, other than a little bit of general scientific knowledge. This is, in other words, a broad argument almost bereft of evidence.