Every year for almost two decades, science-book agent John Brockman asks a bunch of smarty-pants a provocative question. He then publishes the responses on his website, Edge.org, and in a book. Here’s this year’s question: “What do you consider the most interesting recent [scientific] news?”
Brockman just posted responses from almost 200 Edgeheads. Many, as you might guess, tout scientific advances that are allegedly going to alter us in some dramatic way. CRISPR “will transform our species and life itself, fast.” Optogenetics will “allow our minds to encompass the world of computers.” Bayesian algorithms will make machines so smart that humans become “obsolete.” And so on. I must respond to these annoying responses.
In his 1929 work The World, the Flesh and the Devil, the British chemist J.D. Bernal predicted that science would soon allow us to radically re-design our bodies and minds, making us something other than human. “Finally, consciousness itself may end or vanish in a humanity that has become completely etherealized,” Bernal wrote, “losing the close-knit organism, becoming masses of atoms communicating by radiation, and ultimately perhaps resolving itself entirely into light.”
This once-startling vision has become a cliché, endlessly recycled by the modern scientific hype machine. With each new genuine or spurious advance in artificial intelligence, neuroscience and genetics, pundits promise or warn that we are barreling toward a future in which we are irrevocably transformed. The Singularity, a technological heaven or hell, is coming.
The real news is how stubbornly resistant we’ve turned out to be to self-engineering, in spite of all that has happened since Bernal’s prophesy. Yes, science has spawned countless advances, material and intellectual, and yet our lives remain in fundamental ways unchanged. We keep muddling along with all our frailties of mind and body, vulnerable to loneliness and heartbreak, fear and rage, pity and melancholy. We love, grieve, age, die. I suspect we will never escape these essential aspects of the human condition, in spite of our fantasies and fears of techno-transcendence.