Coded gray.

Tuesday 21 May 2002

Spring road

Pic of the day: Could the future be better than this?

Nano millennium?

It seems we can't help but dream of a paradise on Earth. Perhaps this is because it is so close already. Have you ever stood out in the countryside on a mild spring day, and seen the earth open herself to the sun, while the air is heavy with the fragrance of sap and bursting leaves, damp ground and growing grass? Or have you walked a lonely beach on a summer day, and felt the salt-tasting wind caress your bare skin and play with your hair, while birds wheeled high above, their cries a remote music? Have you ever enjoyed a quiet evening meal with someone you loved, and looked up from their smile to see the stars silently find their place one by one in the darkening sky?

But then, like Adam and Eve in Christian poetry, we are rudely thrown out from Paradise. We find ourselves cursed with unpleasant work, illness and eventually old age and death. We quarrel over limited resources, whether it be the household money or national borders. It seems Paradise is, after all, lost.

Yet the dream lives. Originally based on a Jewish prophecy, the idea of the "millennium" has spread from Christian churches into mainstream culture: A time when this Earth is made into a paradise, without the evils and ills that assail us today.


Not all think divine intervention is needed, or even wanted. There are also scientific optimists such as Dyson, Ray Kurzweil and K. Eric Drexler. They believe that we can work our own miracles through genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and nanorobotics.

Some of the claims are so wild as to sound insane: Material possessions will be practically free; a healthy, youthful life of several hundred years, if not thousands; and of course we will colonize the stars. Yet these people aren't lunatics: They are brilliant, successful scientists. And I know some otherwise sane people believe them.

And why not? Take a random ancestor from 200 years ago, and place him in our world. Show him electric light, telephone and television. Let him take a steak from the freezer and put it in the microwave. Drive him in your car to the city, show him the heavy traffic and the high-rise buildings. Let him ride an elevator to the upper floors and look down. Or look up, to see an airplane roar away in the sky. Would he not believe he was dead and gone to the Otherworld, or at least that he was in a world where magic was commonplace? If he could at all retain a vestige of sanity in the face of such profound change.


Why then shouldn't your children or grandchildren enjoy virtually unlimited material wealth and virtually eternal health? Why shouldn't birth defects be fixed painlessly at home while you relax with a good book? (Or whatever passes for books, 30 or 50 years from now.)

Because that is not how it works. The things we wish for are the things we have wished for since the dawn of time; and we got many things, but not those. Oh, we have come a long way since the measure of affluence was a chicken in every pot. And the life expectancy for most of the world has shot up sharply (except in a few countries ravaged by AIDS). Yet in truth very little of this is due to our advanced technology in and of itself. Rather, it is due to a political and economic system (democracy and market economy, respectively) that when combined have the power to lift most people out of poverty, whereas earlier systems relied on a high number of people living in de facto slavery. Modern medicine has made it possible to treat many conditions that were untreatable, but as we live on, the body still breaks down on so many different fronts that we are soon done for. The great leaps in life expectancy comes mostly from reduced child mortality and other effects of improved hygiene and nourishment.

Now indeed we have tools undreamt of by previous generations. Already we have sequenced the human genome, though we are still far from understanding it: The genome is like an old hard disk where the current files are fragmented and stored randomly all over the disk, while most of the space is taken up by old useless junk and duplicates and old backup files that are long forgotten. But even should we understand it in great detail, we are only at the bottom of the stairs. We could compare the DNA of families who have a long natural life span, and find what they have in common. Perhaps we could use this to treat others who are less blessed in that respect: By gene therapy, by medication, or even by diet. It is hard to say. But do not imagine that we can compare the genome of a person who died of old age at 70 with another who died at 90, and then just subtract the genes. Perhaps we would find that one produced more of some proteins and less of others, or something. Do you imagine we could just double whatever the difference was, and increase the life span to 110? Or triple it, and go to 130? It doesn't work that way. The body is a finely tuned mechanism, and neither genes nor pills nor nanomachines will change that. (In fact, we are made of nanomachines, from a manufacturer with like 4 billion years experience.)

Yes, if we manage to survive, we will be able to perform miracles. But we cannot choose what miracles we want. We will simply have a bigger grab bag. Perhaps we will be able to change the natural skin and hair color by eating a daily supplement, something like the birth control pill. Blacks can be whites, whites can be yellow, and blondes can be redheads. It would certainly be cool, but not quite what we asked for. Perhaps it will be possible to make healthy meat substitutes that actually taste like meat and feel like meat. We're kinda on our way to there now, slowly. If healthy meat could be as cheap as bread, that would certainly be something. But not quite unlimited wealth and eternal life.

No, I'm not waiting for Drexler et al to save me. I am sure if science progresses like it has recently, it may be able to extend my life by a year or two, or at least ease the suffering of my last days. But I will still continue the downward slide that has recently begun in my life. Slowly, bit by bit, my body and brain will fail me, and sometime before the middle of the century I will return to dust just like my ancestors of old. We get no more than our lot; and all I can say at the last is, "Jesus! Remember me when you come in your kingdom." I'm not so sure he will, but I have far more hope in Jesus than in nanobots. Time, of course, will show.

In the meantime, I think the closest we come to paradise is to not demand more than we need, and not wish for more than we can get. Rather a little bit less, so we have something to share with each other. Who would need more paradise than you find in a pair of thankful eyes?

Yesterday <-- This month --> Tomorrow?
One year ago: Jogging and fluff
Two years ago: A too bright day
Three years ago: Non player characters

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