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Pathfinders

The Tomorrow People

Future society will be populated by very special people. Within their ageless bodies will exist rejuvenated organs cloned from versions of their cells that have been made younger; youthful hearts and youthful lungs that will beat and breathe forever. Beneath their skin will scamper nanobots: blood-cell sized robots which, like highway maintenance vehicles, will rove their bloodstreams destroying pathogens, removing waste, correcting errors in DNA and reversing the ageing process. The same tiny machines will also enable brain-to-brain communication – telepathy of sorts – via the internet and ensure a vast expansion in human intelligence. Arguably, those special people may become less human as their bodies merge with a technology so advanced that it gradually begins to exceed and replace mere flesh and blood. At least, that’s the prediction of Ray Kurzweil, a Massachusetts-based inventor and writer, in his article ‘Human 2.0’ (New Scientist, September 2005). As is all too common with techie gurus, he has only the vaguest concept of political realities, so it doesn’t occur to him to question whether the future in question will be capitalist or socialist. If Kurzweil even grasped the difference, he probably still wouldn’t understand why the question was relevant. He observes certain antiprogressive tendencies in modern society, and ascribes them to some anomalous general human behaviour, rather than class, specifically capitalist class, behaviour. Consequently he proffers dire warnings about what we ought to do with our collective human knowledge, without ever addressing why we, the vast majority, are not in a position to control or determine what is done with that knowledge. Those of us who take an interest in the scientific adventure feel frequently piqued at the tendency of ‘futurologists’ like Kursweil, Toffler et al to overlook the fundamental political issues arising from the fact that human society is class-based. Scientists can be very far-sighted but at the same time have only a very narrow field of view, like a blinkered racehorse. Still, given our interest in the implications of science for a future socialist society, his predictions are interesting nonetheless and could be seen as relevant to it.

Ray Kurzweil is a pioneer in the fields of optical character recognition (OCR), text-to-speech synthesis, speech recognition technology, and electronic musical keyboards. He is the author of several books on health, artificial intelligence, transhumanism, and technological singularity. He is also an enthusiastic advocate of using technology to achieve immortality. He predicts that ‘we won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century - it will be more like 20,000 years of progress’ due to exponential rather than linear techological change which will result in the Singularity, ‘technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history’ (http://en.wikipedia.org).

The concept of a singularity, a new technological ‘big bang’, is an exciting one, and Kurzweil is clearly very taken with it. It is fairly obvious that science does not progress in linear fashion, like a train along a railway, but in geometric fashion, doubling and doubling again. Revolutions in science are almost a weekly event these days, and it is therefore not hard to imagine a ‘super-revolution’, a point where the whole of human society has to change very suddenly. In a way, a socialist political revolution is almost implicit in such an event, as the fetters and restrictions of outmoded social practices are blown to pieces in a matter of days or weeks by the devastating power of the singularity.

Of course, he could be wrong. There may be no singularity, despite all the indications. Alternatively, the powers that be might be able to prevent or limit it. You don’t get rich by giving things away for free. There is every reason to suppose, for example, that nanotechnology, one very likely factor in causing the singularity, will be strictly controlled and limited, a bomb kept in a concrete box.

Tellingly, Kurzweil comments that ‘to proscribe such technologies will not only deprive human society of profound benefits, but will drive these technologies underground, which would make the dangers worse’ (New Scientist, September 2005).

It’s not difficult to see how the proscriptive tendency of capitalism, governed by the rule of production for profit not need, could put a dampener on Kurzweil’s technology-enriched version of humanity. If such technology does come onto the market, to whom will it be available? All of humanity without exception, as Kurzweil perhaps hopes, or only those wealthy enough to afford it? After all, it is likely to be expensive treatment, making its beneficiaries not only economically superior, but genetically superior also. Yet another proscriptive tendency is intellectual property right (see Patent Absurdity, and also ‘Intellectual Property: a further restriction on personal freedom’ for a fuller discussion of this subject).

Kurzweil likes to define humans as ‘the species that seeks – and succeeds – in going beyond our limitations’. But we will really start making some progress when the scientific community succeeds in going beyond its own limitations, and recognising the political dimension of the human project. Many scientists individually seem to understand the restrictive and anti-progressive nature of current practices, but somehow assume that explicit political positions are outside their remit, or even beneath them. In fact, all humans take a political position, whether they admit it or not. Science does not sit in a rarefied world above politics, it is part and parcel of it, and scientists who care about the world’s future ought to have the courage and honesty to declare themselves, and stop worrying about peer-group pressure. It’s not the professional suicide it once was. If you oppose the restrictive practices of capitalism, then you oppose capitalism. It doesn’t take an Einstein or even a Kursweil to work out what that means.

PATENT ABSURDITY

Patent and copyright laws exist to ‘protect’ their authors and to provide a profit incentive to develop new ideas and technologies, according to the lobby which advocates strengthening patent law. But this lobby generally consists of large companies who have zealously bought up libraries of patents in order to lock out competitors, while the opponents of patent restrictions tend to be small companies unable to get a foot in the door, and who argue that such restrictions hold back development.

Human Genome Sciences of Maryland are well known for patenting much of the human genome, and once tried to patent one of the bacteria that causes meningitis, while Incyte Pharmaceuticals of Palo Alto, California own the patent on Staphylococcus aureus, a species whose study is crucial because it is known to evolve resistance to antibiotics (New Scientist, May 16, 1998).

An independent commission on intellectual property rights reported in 2002 that the World Trade Organisation were strong-arming developing countries into signing intellectual property rights (IPR) agreements which were of no benefit to them, because they had very little to patent, but instead force up prices and inhibit technology transfer. The report concluded that IPRs effectively rip off poor countries (New Scientist, Sept 21, 2002).

The issue of patents is always going to be thorny, because both arguments are correct – in capitalism. Ownership of intellectual property has to be protected in a property owning society, as anyone who has had their house burgled, their car stolen or their idea robbed will tend to agree, but there is no denying that intellectual property rights do indeed stifle innovation in every field, because of the tendency of patents to concentrate into the hands of the intellectual property rich. The scientific community is divided on the question, between those who believe in knowledge for its own sake and therefore wish to pool ideas, and those who wish to profit personally from their research by denying others access. Since this is precisely the same debate as between socialists and those who support capitalism, one might describe scientists who wish to abolish patent and copyright restrictions as closet socialists.