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SCIENCE & SPACE
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'Heaven or Hell'

Will the future be worse than our nightmares?

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Some scientists who are advocates of the 'hell' scenario believe we may eliminate all life on earth
start quoteThe optimistic view for those who subscribe to the Hell scenario is that we destroy all human life within 25 years. The pessimistic one is we destroy all life. end quote
-- Joel Garreau

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(CNN) -- Heaven or Hell? In the second of a three-part series CNN hears how some scientists believe the future will be worse than our darkest nightmares.

At the height of the dotcom boom, just as the world was entering into a giddy techno-frenzy, Bill Joy wrote a 24-page article in Wired --- the magazine that best exemplified the positive, forward-looking zeitgeist --- entitled "Why The Future Doesn't Need Us".

It was a stark warning to all their readers: the technology they loved would soon destroy them.

Bill Joy is no Luddite. He co-founded Sun Microsystems. He's an insider, an extremely eminent scientist and mathematician. A man steeped in technology and devoted to progress who has spent his life pushing forward the boundaries of computer power. And yet here he was prophesising that humanity's quest to move forward would ultimately and rapidly lead to its extinction.

In the article he laid out his fear that nanotechnology, genetics and cybernetics were leading us towards a point where the human race would become obsolete. A point where these technologies would have a life beyond their masters will -- they would be able to self-replicate and self-develop without human interference.

Then we would become peripheral to their development, he argued, and they would dispose of us. Simple evolutionary theory: the Hell scenario.

"The optimistic view for those who subscribe to the Hell scenario is that we destroy all human life within 25 years," says Joel Garreau, author of Radical Evolution, which explores different visions of the future. "The pessimistic one is we destroy all life."

"We are certainly at a turning point. For centuries we have used technology to change our environment. But now we are using it to change ourselves, we are messing around with our souls and what it is to be human.

Just as the fate of the 20th century was arbitrated by the looming menace of NBC -- nuclear, bacterial and chemical --- weapons. So the fears and fate of the 21st century will be decided by so-called G.R.I.N. technologies --- genetic, robotic, information and nano.

The difference being, while NBC weapons were isolated in the hands of certain governments, and access to them depended, not only on know-how, but complex technology and raw materials that could be to a degree controlled and restricted by non-proliferation treaties. G.R.I.N. are already largely in the hands of the private sector, as ubiquitous and uncontrollable as information is in the information age: the property of anyone with a lab, money, a web connection and a few PhD-level minds.

Their development is occurring in secret, in largely unregulated environments, and decisions about what is ethical or proper are taken by whoever holds the purse strings.

The way business and society has been effected by globalization and the growth of the Internet adds a further tier of complexity to any attempt to regulate technology.

The exponential growth of computing power is taking these technologies forward quicker than we can socially adjust to them, or even properly consider their impacts.

It's not necessarily even that that these technologies will fall into the hands of evil people, but that scientists working in an academic bubble, without ethical scrutiny and pursuing research for its own merits may accidentally create something truly appalling, something that might escape beyond the safety of a lab. Or be picked up and used as a weapon by somebody else with genuinely wicked intention.

This is perhaps best illustrated by an experiment carried out in 2000 in Canberra, Australia. Mice have no natural enemies in Australia and periodically their populations run amok. The researchers were trying to find a way to control them and added an extra gene to mouse pox DNA in an attempt to create a mouse contraceptive, but instead accidentally developed a 100 per cent lethal version of mouse pox, the details of which they posted on the Internet.

Mouse pox doesn't affect humans, but smallpox does. A similar manipulation of smallpox based on their experiments could, according to Garreau, "provide any disgruntled grad student with a reasonably well-equipped lab with a good chance of creating something that could wipe out the human race."

"What's more most of the innovations of our era arrive in a very bottom-up way," says Garreau. "If you look at eBay, Skype or any of the many other dotcom successes that really change the way people behave, they emerged from the minds of one or two people, and are controlled by their users. It's hard to imagine our existing top-down institutions and bureaucracies evolving quick enough to cope with this, never mind control or regulate it."

But it isn't even the threat of destruction by a yet unrealized and unweaponised technology that should concern us, but the effect that more benign technologies could have of on the fabric of our society.

"Culture and values evolve slower than technical innovation," says Garreau. "If you look at the 1950s, it was a time of huge advances in technology -- nuclear weapons, birth control, TV -- yet it was the 1960s that was the decade of upheaval, there's a lag. Similarly the 1990s was a decade of innovation, with the Internet, cell phones, the PC all taking off. But it's now, in the first decade of the 21st century that we're seeing the upheaval with the rise of fundamentalism as a reaction to the new insecurities technology has brought."

This social upheaval could be supercharged. Soon we will have the capacity to radically improve on nature, to make ourselves stronger, more intelligent, with a better memory and perhaps even the ability to go days without sleep, and this could have the capacity to exacerbate existing social division to a startling degree.

"This is not some distant sci-fi, this is happening now, on our watch," says Garreau. "Already you can get steroids and performance enhancing smart dugs on college campuses across the U.S. Soon your kids are going to be coming home from school in tears because they can't compete with the 'enhanced' kids who are smarter, cuter and fitter than they are."

The potential future for humanity is of a race of have and have-not humans. Some who can live way beyond our current lifespans and keep achieving amazing things to the end, and others who have become increasingly obsolete to a changing society due to a lack of the financial resources to opt-in.

"I can see a future where there is more than one type of human walking the earth," says Garreau.

"We know historically that when this happens, when humans compete for an ecological niche --- and they did 50,000 years ago when Homo Sapiens and Cro-Magnons co-existed --- it usually ends badly for one."

What effect will it have on politics when the wealthy no longer need the poor? When the powerful no longer need the weak? When perceptions of human value have been radically altered by self-enhancement? You only have to look back sixty years to find a time when eugenic theories and ideas of racial superiority were mainstream, and they still lurk on the fringes of society. To dispute the potential for another Nazi-like revival is to defy the evidence of history.

The future, it seems is an uncertain place. But the apostles of both the Heaven and Hell scenarios base their predictions on the assumption that it is technology that changes society, not society that changes itself.

History would seem to suggest humanity has a knack for muddling though, and that the future is very hard to predict with any accuracy. Could it be the future will be neither heaven, nor hell, but somewhere in between?

NEXT WEEK: Prevail

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