The Next Stage in Our Evolution

May 2008
By Ilmas Futehally

Certain events in the world act as dividers of time. The world before the event and after the event are fundamentally changed for ever. So, I have often been asked "where were you when Indira Gandhi was assassinated?", "where were you when the deluge of 26th July took place?”. A very common question that all of us have been asked is “where were you on the morning of 9/11?" I am sure that all of us remember the answers to these questions very graphically. Where one was standing when you heard the news, who else was around, one's immediate reactions and emotions......

One question of this nature that will be asked in the future will be where were you on the 11th of February 2001? This was the day when the genetic code for the human genome was announced in the scientific journals. (Actually it was officially announced on 12th February 2001, but the embargo was broken by one newspaper). This discovery unleashed new knowledge, not just about the human being and its functioning; it changed the manner in which biology is practiced.

Combining the potential of life with computer technologies is creating a new type of biology, “in silico biology” coined by Juan Enriquez in his bookAs the Future Catches You. In Silico biology has been able to change not just the way biology is done, but even thought about. For example, in the 1970s, Monsanto estimated that the cost of sequencing a gene would cost USD 150,000,000. Today using computers and other devices the average cost of sequencing a gene has come down considerably (almost by one thousandth). Once it is possible to sequence the genes of individuals at a cost that is feasible, medicine will undergo a transformation. Personalised medicine will be possible.

Personalized medicine is based on deciphering a person’s genome or genotype and anticipating possible genetic and hereditary diseases before they strike. The benefits lie in its accuracy, efficacy, safety, speed and cost. Because of the anticipatory nature of personalised medicine, they can prevent most of suffering associated with diseases like diabetes, heart disease, common cancers, high blood pressure, asthma, mental illness — almost any disease that tends to be passed on via our genes.

To help achieve this aim, an interesting prize has been constituted. The Archon X Prize offers US dollar ten million to the first team that can build a device and use it to sequence 100 human genomes within 10 days or less, with an accuracy of no more than one error in every 100,000 bases sequenced, with sequences accurately covering at least 98% of the genome, and at a recurring cost of no more than $10,000 per genome. This prize is supported in part by Craig Venter, one of the pioneers of genomic research, who to his credit has the sequencing of the human genome using new mathematical algorithms.

But beyond the realm of personalised medicine, expected to be a reality about 10 to 15 years in the future, lies a whole new science of creating new kinds of humans or posthumans. Nick Bostrom at Oxford University describes posthumans either completely synthetic artificial intelligences, or they could be enhanced uploads or they could be the result of making many smaller but cumulatively profound augmentations to a biological human.

Looking at the rate at which computing power is increasing, the day of the posthuman is not too far away. Moore’s Law refers to the time and cost of doubling of computing power. For the past couple of years, the doubling time has averaged between 18 months and two years. It is expected that within our life time computers will have the same processing capacity as the human brain. Thus computers will soon be superintelligent- i.e be able to outperform human beings in practically every field, including scientific and technological creativity. But the big question is whether these superintelligent beings will be wise as well.

So looking back on the momentous announcement made on 11th February 2001, I wonder if it is the discovery that will change the lives of all for the better, bringing about a new era of health, wealth and happiness. Or is it going to destroy our world by churning out a new kind of demon? Either way, the date will much be discussed in years to come.

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