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How the breakout of technology threatens human sovereignty

By Peter McMahon - posted Tuesday, 16 March 2004


With little fanfare, our technological abilities are now reaching a stage that will soon radically transform the basic conditions of human life. Due mainly to advances in computing, a number of technologies are combining to generate such dramatic and novel capabilities that it could be termed a "technology breakout". And there is the real prospect that this coming radical transformation will eventually result in the end of human civilisation as we know it. Indeed, there is the real prospect that after many millennia human beings will no longer call the shots here on earth.

The impact of technology on modern life can hardly be exaggerated, and certainly the negative side of technology is apparent. For decades following World War II humanity lived in the shadow of the nuclear bomb, and feared total annihilation. But eventually the Cold War ended, and for a while it seemed that technological doom no longer threatened. Then along came international terrorism; Iraq, North Korea and the other "rogue states"; and the technological threat – now expanded to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction (WMD) - seems worse than ever.

But the underlying problem is much more profound than the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, as bad as that is. In effect, science-driven technology is getting out of control. Due mainly to the extraordinary capabilities generated by the information technologies developed over the past half century, all our technological capacities are being radically enhanced, with sustained exponential growth in some areas. The recently completed Human Genome Project, which promises to totally change our approach to human health, and perhaps human behaviour more generally, is a good example of such a breakthrough.

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This trend of explosive growth in technological capability is perhaps best exemplified by Moore’s Law, which says, in relation to microelectronic information processors, that processing capacity doubles roughly every 18 months. Few understand the implications of this exponential growth in capacity, which sees slow growth suddenly accelerate into self–reinforcing, explosive growth. For example, IBM’s latest supercomputer, Blue Gene, due to be finished in a year or two, is projected to operate at around a billion megaflops. As such it will be more powerful than all the supercomputers currently operating combined. The rapid increase in computing power is generating talk about how this relates to human intellectual capacity. While there is much dispute as to whether anything like human consciousness could emerge, rough comparisons of human and cybernetic "computing power" have been made for some time. As such, there are predictions that in a decade or two computers with an equivalent intelligence to the human brain will appear; a few years later a computer with an intelligence equivalent to Australia’s whole population will be built; and soon after that one with the capacity of the entire human race will arrive.

This accelerating technological capacity is so pronounced that some theorists argue that a point will soon be reached where the technology becomes completely unpredictable, and in practical terms out of control. At this point, called the "singularity" (because it is the point where the graph line of computing capacity turns upwards at almost right-angles), greater-than-human intelligence may well arise and take the decision-making process away from us superseded humans entirely. This, some argue, will see the advent of a post-human future, at which point - for us humans at least - all bets are off.

The optimists argue that such a cyber-intelligence would coddle humanity, and look after us like some electronic nanny. The pessimists point to how we have treated the various species we out-competed; like lions, elephants and sharks; and suggest we might in fact be the new oxen or sheep, or maybe the new dodos.

Although this all seems like the stuff of science fiction, a loss of control by legitimate authority over our technology and its impact is already well under way. Due to this ever-improving technology and the free flow of information made available by such innovations as the Internet, all too soon almost any organisation with the necessary resources will be able to buy or build a nuclear bomb or ballistic missile. Any smart kid with a good knowledge of biochemistry will be able to cook up a new plague in the school science lab. This situation presents an unprecedented challenge to our existing forms of sociopolitical control, which have been based on control over material resources rather than control of knowledge. The downside of the knowledge society is that much of this knowledge is inherently dangerous, a brutal fact that we have preferred to downplay, if not ignore.

Mostly, the technology breakout is being driven by interests at the heart of modern civilisation, like the big corporations and the military. Ultimately, our technologies come to embody the dominant forces of society, and in particular the values and concerns of the most powerful. Over the past two centuries when, thanks to industrialisation, technology has vastly grown in capacity to change the world, two basic concepts have prevailed over all others: economic efficiency and national security. It is these drives – made material by corporations and markets on one hand and national governments on the other – that have most shaped our technologies.

But then the very capabilities of the new technologies generate novel social and material conditions. For instance, globalisation – a direct result of the advances in transport and communications technologies and, more recently, information and communications technology – is making the concept of "national security" meaningless. Similarly, global warming - a product of two centuries of rampant industrialisation – requires that we prioritise environmental sustainability up there with economic efficiency to deal with it.

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It should be pointed out that this technological juggernaut is not an automatic development. It does not just happen by itself. It takes vast resources in people, money and materials to generate these new technologies, and if these resources were not forthcoming, the whole thing would stagnate. But such technological development is now at the heart of commercial and national viability under conditions of ever-greater competition. As the controversies over GM crops and cloning have shown, it is very difficult to put the techno-genie back in the bottle. Once the technologies are potentially - let alone actually - available, there arise powerful constituencies to support further development.

Very soon we will face the real possibility that if we do not quickly rethink our basic modes of social, economic and environmental practice, our technology will decide the future for us.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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