What is it that makes us Homo sapiens so outstanding among known life forms ? The answer, in most cases, will be a resounding zombie-like “BRAINS!” and that is of course quite true. I would however like to argue that it is technology, the product of our minds, that defines us above all else. Should we, for instance, venture into the wilderness with nothing but these superior minds of ours, would we not struggle a great deal in order to survive? Indeed, given how much we’ve come to rely on technology, most of us would die before we could find food or water. Keep in mind that it does not simply refer to firearms, machines or computers but also encompasses something as basic and fundamental as language. Studies have shown that without this infrastructure our minds would be disorderly and we would only be able to extract a fraction of their capabilities. Thus, stripped of our technological armour all that if left is an unusually sharp ape and little more.
Several million years ago our ancestors weren’t any more adept at tool use than our modern non-human primates but in the present we have already changed the face of the Earth and sent objects to the edge of our solar system. If that doesn’t strike your mind, consider that most of it has taken place in the last two centuries, after the industrial revolution. Such impressive growth is possible because technology feeds on itself, accelerating at an exponential rate, which may soon escape our human comprehension. According to calculations of famed inventor and futurist Raymond Kurzweil in less than forty years “the pace of change will be so astonishingly quick that you won’t be able to follow it unless you enhance your own intelligence by merging with the intelligent technology we are creating”. Such an image is bound to evoke different reactions but their strength is unquestionable.
There are those who shudder at the very notion that technology might enter their bodies, some out of religious motives but most out of irrational fear. This behaviour is, of course, nothing new and has existed since the dawn of civilization: some will always oppose the next big step in technological evolution while often embracing the status quo that was cause of concern just a few generations prior. Every single invention or discovery can be used to both create and destroy, the risk is undeniable, but should that risk halt progress ? A simple research will show that in the past century and a half human life expectancy has doubled and that the standard of living has been steadily increasing, offering us the tools to live a more fulfilling life. Not only should technology not be stifled but doing so is nigh on impossible. The desire for comfort, an outgrowth of our instinct for survival, pushes us to continuously better our situation with strength comparable to that of lust and hunger. Forcibly limiting technological evolution is thus not only impossible in the long run but against nature, which ironically is the flagship accusation of the technophobes.
Many believe that we are inevitably heading towards our own destruction, be it by putting increasingly more powerful weapons at the service of human greed and ignorance or by naïvely creating and nurturing intelligences which might surpass our own and decide that we are parasites to be exterminated. Scientists agree that our civilization is at a turning point where we can either flourish, becoming masters of our planet and eliminating poverty and petty human conflict1, or implode upon ourselves and revert to a primitive, non-technological state, granted that we survive. Faced with such a prospect some grow frightened and seek to impose arbitrary boundaries to scientific research, failing to realise that stifling one of the branches will inevitably, to some extent, stifle the others in unforeseeable ways.
If we are to truly progress it is imperative that we have freedom of research. Without it, it may well be possible that humanity be forever tethered to this planet and die along with it. The likelihood of calamities that could potentially deliver a terrible blow to our civilization or even wipe us out entirely is alarmingly high, not to mention the fact that our sun has a limited life span. In order to preserve our species it is essential that we develop interstellar travel and colonize other planets orbiting around other stars.
Hence, it is a question of choosing between the possibility of self destruction in the pursuit of technological advancement and the certainty of doom in its absence. We probably won’t be around to see any of these outcomes but I think we can all agree upon which is the better path.
1 A civilization with those attributes qualifies as a Type I on the Kardashev scale. Currently we are still a Type 0, meaning that our primary sources of energy and raw-materials are still organic based.