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SCIENCE & SPACE
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Heaven or hell?

How will technology shape our future?

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Scientists led by Ray Kurzweil believe technology will radically change what it is to be human -- for the better.
start quoteWe're doubling the power of computers every year. In 25 years, they'll be a billion times more powerful than they are today.end quote
-- Ray Kurzveil

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Humanity is on the verge of an incredible future. Technologies that seem like science fiction are already becoming science fact as researchers develop innovations that will transform the very essence of what it is to be human.

"The pace of change is exponential, not linear," says inventor, entrepreneur, author, and futurist Ray Kurzweil. "So things fifty years from now will be very different. That's pretty phenomenal. It took us fifteen years to sequence HIV, we sequenced SARS in 31 days."

Nanotechnology, genetics and cybernetics will mean that we will become faster, stronger and more beautiful; we will live longer and banish disease; we will be more intelligent and quicker-witted with photographic memories and the ability to go days without sleep.

"We're doubling the power of computers every year for the same cost," says Kurzweil. "In 25 years, they'll be a billion times more powerful than they are today. At the same time we're shrinking the size of all technology, electronic and mechanical, by a factor of a hundred per decade, that's a hundred thousand in 25 years."

Kurzweil argues that the growth of computing power, miniaturization and increased technical prowess will turn the world into an incredible place -- free from the conflicts over resources and wealth that have plagued it and in the last century and almost led to our obliteration in the fires of global thermonuclear war.

That is, if you believe one particular school of thought.

Other, equally eminent, minds believe we are on the cusp of an incredible disaster -- possibly even our own extinction -- as the technology we are so rapidly giving birth to moves beyond us, and self-replicates, casting us aside or even exterminating us.

In a 24-page article published in Wired magazine in March 2000, Bill Joy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, laid out his grave fears for the future of humanity. In doing so he began a debate about whether we were really in control of the technology we were producing and such rapid speeds.

Kurzweil's vision fills him with horror: "I can date the onset of my unease to the day I met Ray Kurzweil."

"Enhancement and transhumanism opens up a real debate," says baroness Greenfield, Professor of Pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford University. "Biotech, nanotech and cognitive enhancement will lead to a blurring of the boundaries of what it is to be human and a collapse of the traditional boundaries that define us. There's a very real risk of creating a world of have and have-nots led by an arms race of ideas, and for what?"

A new, wealthy elite of superhumans with access to self-enhancing technologies could create a social divide that would make the eugenics and racial superiority myths of the Nazis look like high school politics -- and exact their own terrible Final Solution on the 'obsolete' poor. Or rogue nanotech could endlessly self-replicate and smother the globe in 'grey goo'. Terrorists or careless scientists could release genetically engineered plagues that could annihilate the population of Earth.

"Increasingly science is nudging into the realm of ethics," says Greenfield. "Soon we will see the rise of bio-ethics as a serious discipline. But it should be given the status of politics."

Perhaps we will hand over so much control of our lives to self-reproducing robots, simply because they will do things better than us, that one day they will decide they don't need us anymore. Game over.

Or perhaps the future is more complex -- and more nuanced. Human beings have a knack for survival and muddling through. We have survived ice ages and industrial revolutions, and lived through the high wire tension of the Cold War without turning our civilization into ash as so many predicted.

Perhaps technology influences society but doesn't always determine its direction. Culture, religion, trends and political movements all affect the way humanity interacts with science. Perhaps as a species we will sometimes take the knocks, and sometimes ride the waves of what the future has in store for us; suffering and benefiting in something approaching equal measure. But overall we will survive.

These three scenarios -- which author Joel Garreau named Heaven, Hell and Prevail in his book, Radical Evolution - dominate debate about our future. Over the next three weeks CNN Future Summit will hear the arguments from all sides, speak to the key thinkers involved, and ultimately invite you to draw your own conclusions about what lies ahead for us all.

NEXT WEEK: Heaven

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