The Big Question: Are We Coding Our Way Into Paradise?

As we move into a world more and more consumed by emerging technologies it remains important as ever to bring this discussion into the open. Synthetic biology, medical augmentation technologies such as CRISPR, and the looming threat of A.I. are all set to transform our future. Will the human species be recognizable a century from now?Are there any ethical time-bombs that we’re unaware of?
We asked our three panelists, Kenneth Cukier, Warren Ellis and professor John Harris, appearing at this week’s sold out event Coding Our Way Into Paradise, exactly that. What does paradise mean within this technological context?

Kenneth Cukier: It’s a great topic and a great title. It’s a great title in large part because it embodies so much scepticism by using the word ‘paradise.’ It’s really a dig at the cyber-optimistic ethic that says that we can use technology to solve all our problems in the world. Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here, as well as Andrew Keen’s The Internet Is Not the Answer, they are two great sceptics that I admire, who are doing the right thing in being sceptical. However in general I think it is a lot easier in society to be sceptical than it is to be favourable towards something, and it is a professional defect of the media, journalist, pundit, intellectual class. So it leads to some perverse outcomes. Sometimes it seems that people who are pessimistic are just not dupes to the orthodoxy, and people who are in favour of these things appear as stooges because they’re not thinking critically about it. I’m a journalist, I totally understand this. But I’m a mature journalist and I understand this in its context. You have to actively apply a filter to distinguish between what you want to embrace and what you want to be critical about, because it’s just too facile to be critical.

We are not going to reach a peaceful kingdom on earth. This idea of paradise ain’t gonna happen. However these new tools and technology have the potential to seriously improve a lot of mankind in a historic way. In the same way that we’ve seen it improve before. The application of mathematics to physical phenomenon, beginning with the renaissance, absolutely changed our society, from the height with which we could build our buildings, to bookkeeping (how we actually accounted for our assets) to how we understood the physical universe. Likewise, one innovation, germ theory and the washing of hands has probably accounted for more saved lives than anything else in the history of mankind.

Computers are still sort of a pump for humans. They’re not doing much beyond the human mind, in so far as we program them and they do what we want them to do. Therefore they’re hindered by our own imagination and by what we want them to do when we program them. Like a lever or a pulley they give us more muscle but they don’t do anything innovative. They’re starting to do more innovative things because of artificial intelligence and machine learning. They’re going to be able to process data on the kind of scale that human beings would never be able to do themselves, and they’re going to come up with answers to solve our problems, and understand the universe in ways that we would never be able to fathom.

Warren Ellis:  The phrase ‘coding our way to paradise’ tends to suggest the idea that we’re all headed in the same direction together and that is not remotely true in terms of gene editing, designer babies, things like this. There are people who literally have gene editing suites in their garages, and that is not as regulated as perhaps some people would like. So the idea that we’re all heading together towards the same common goal is one we want to interrogate and possibly discard. Once this technology is out there people always start doing things on their own. That can be good and it can be bad obviously. JPL started because a bunch of students blew up a house trying to make rocket fuel using things they found at university. The university’s response was to provide them a whole new place for them to just get on with it, and that obviously led to marvellous things.

If you want to stray into my world of science-fiction then you tend to lean towards dystopian narratives because writing utopian fiction that doesn’t put people to sleep is very difficult. So we take the easy way and look for people that breed plagues in their garages or whatever. All of which is to say that it’s a bigger and messier question than I think we would like.

John Harris: There are lots of ways in which we may get nearer to paradise. Whether any of those will amount to a species change is an interesting and complicated question, but possibly not an important question. I don’t think of myself as a transhumanist because they tend to want only to transform our species, and I don’t give a damn about what happens to the species as long as some creatures like us survive and improve.

There are certain things happening that are not very startling in that they are continuous with what medical science has been doing for many years. Basically improving our disease resistance, improving our ability to live longer by not dying of diseases and injuries that currently beset human kind. Some of the technologies are wonderfully futuristic, such as CRISPR Cas9 and mitochondrial transfer and so on, but some our modest improvements on what we’ve always been doing. Longevity is the one area in which I might have to admit that a species change may take place, and that’s because traditionally we humans have made a distinction between mortals and immortals. Some people believe in lots of gods, some people believe in one or two, and some people like me believe in none. But most people accept that gods, if there is such a thing, are immortal. If we can make ourselves immortal then I think that might amount to a species change simply because it changes the way we think of humans. I mean, another word for human is mortal.

Coding Our Way Into Paradise: From Human to Non-Human will take place this Thursday at Second Home starting 7.30pm.