Across the centuries, many things have been predicted to end the world. Volcanoes. The biblical rapture. Asteroid impacts. Gay marriage. A few of them almost did.
Recently, the popular bogeyman has been technology (mainly in the form of nuclear war or zombies, because let’s face it, this is pop culture we’re discussing). So far, such threats have mostly failed to materialize. Following in this proud tradition of fear-mongering and sensationalism, we bring you seven technologies that frankly scare the hell out of us.
While obviously a bit of buzzword, nanotechnology remains an interesting concept. The idea is simple: build machines atom by atom, and you can build anything that could ever be. The technology is still far off at this point, but if it comes to fruition, the possibilities will be endless. We could rebuild dying tissue, remove cancer cell by cell, build structures a thousand miles high. Also, we could probably wipe out the human race without a lot of trouble.
Imagine an engineer needs to empty out a lot of rusting cars. So, he creates a nanomachine out of iron that’ll replicate itself inside the bodies of the cars, until eventually the entire iron mass of the cars has been converted into nanomachines, which can be instructed to march to the recycling plant. Then, after he’s set it loose, he realizest he’s standing on a gigantic ball of iron. Oops. This is known as the gray goo problem, and it comes in a thousand terrifying varieties. All of them have one thing in common: humanity is in big trouble.
6. Climate manipulation
It’s scientific consensus that humans have been inadvertently altering the gaseous mix of the atmosphere since the industrial revolution with potentially catastrophic effects. It’s remarkable, if you think about it. Humans are either so badass or so clumsy (the jury is still out) that we can change the climate of an entire planet without even trying to.
So — what if we were to try to do it on purpose? Say, manipulate global climates to turn the Sahara into green pastures, or just set some icebergs loose in the bible belt? Okay, maybe that’s a little optimistic – let’s set our sights a little lower. All the fuss over global warming is about a change of a few degrees, right? I bet we can manage that, if we really throw care to the wind and put our mad science hats on.
Well, as it turns out, somebody did. Specifically, John Martin, had an idea: temperatures are largely controlled by the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. This level is, in turn, controlled by the number of plants absorbing it. As it turns out, the vast majority of CO2 absorption is handled by algae in the sea, not land-based plants. So, if there was more algae, it follows that there would be less CO2, and global temperatures would fall. Also, as it turns out, algae likes iron -really likes iron. Dump iron in the sea, create more algae, suck up CO2, drop temperatures. This lead to the following quote from Martin: “Give me a half a tanker of iron and I’ll give you the next ice age.” Which, is probably the most badass thing to come out of a climatologists mouth since ever, not counting Al Gore.
Now, depending on how much you like raw mammoth meat, that may sound like a really dangerous thing to do – so, you’ll be happy to know that these guys actually started doing it. They didn’t get very far before the ecological world had a collective freakout and shut them down, but it seemed to, in fact, work. Now, while Planktos eventually failed, the facts remain: the world is getting hotter, people like quick solutions when their necks are on the line, and iron is cheap. Somebody is going to try it again, sooner or later. Whether it’ll cure us or kill us, we’ll just have to hope.
5. Genetic Engineering
The idea behind genetic engineering is fairly simple: since all life on earth shares the same basic mechanism (DNA chains decoded into proteins), it should be fairly easy to take the code apart, swap bits around as needed, and put it back together again. If thinking about that doesn’t give your inner mad scientist a twinkle in his eye, you probably have no soul.
The possibilities are endless, and are being explored with the rapid efficiency of good business sense including bigger and more resilient food stocks, hypoallergenic cats, glow in the dark fish, goats that make spider silk, oh, and a permanent cure for cavities Hell, many medications and hormones are now produced by GM bacteria. The potential to benefit the human race is tremendous, though I’m certain the fish thing is just geneticists screwing around.
The downside is that you can also do a lot of damage by accident. Normally, organisms evolve slowly enough that the rest of the ecosystem has time to cope. It takes tens of millenia to evolve a new species by normal means. In contrast, an organism designed by humans can go from inception to mass production in a few years. An organism created this way can spread all over the world before the biosphere knows what hit it.
The good news is that you need lots of expertise to do this kind of thing, right? Lots of lab equipment, years of training. What are the odds?
Well, for one thing, teenagers are doing it in college. Community college. God help us all.
4. Desktop fabrication
Today, building things is difficult. Most of our economy is based on big factories and lots of money – it’s totally unprofitable to manufacture less than a quarter million of anything. Desktop fabrication aims to change all that.
By using new fabrication techniques, it is becoming possible to build what amounts to a factory in a box. This is done using lasers or heating elements to weld tiny particles together to build objects layer by layer, a technique known as ‘3d printing’. So far, prototypes are limited, clunky, and expensive, but the technology has been slowly progressing towards the holy grail: a box that fits on your desk, requires only cheap raw materials, and can fabricate… just about anything. The current models can only fabricate plastic, but some prototypes can work with steel and titanium, and there are plans to get them working with silicon. Imagine if you needed a new cell phone – you could buy a new model from the website, or pull down open-source hardware. Turn on the fabricator, go get lunch, and come back to the cell phone sitting in the out-tray (or possibly ‘PC LOAD LETTER,’ because printers are printers).
So, what’s the downside here? Well, let’s look at the obvious. If you can buy a cell phone, you can also torrent a handgun – or a rocket launcher – or, really, any weapon. Regulation of weaponry becomes essentially impossible. But, okay, that probably won’t end the world, though it might make home invasions a lot messier if the average man own an RPG launcher.
Now, let’s talk about manufacturing. Currently, companies rely on the difficulty of manufacturing to protect intellectual property – if someone starts up a new factory making counterfeit iphones, somebody notices. If someone discovers you’re illegally manufacturing Rolls Royces, expect calls from extremely unamused lawyers. With desktop fabrication, this is no longer the case. You can’t sue hundreds of millions of people, as bittorrent has already demonstrated. Piracy could very easily move from being a software problem to being an everything problem. Massive numbers of companies could go out of business. In theory such companies would no longer be needed – Half the world’s industry suddenly collapsing would have devastating effects on the world economy including food production. This little recession we’re coming out of? A slow day, by comparison. Think the great depression, plus or minus a bank run or three.
3. Pest Control
People need food crops. That’s been true since the agricultural revolution. Also true since always: insects like to eat our tasty, tasty plants. And, since we’ve had the capacity, we’ve been poisoning the little buggers as fast as we can. Pretty much every farm in the world relies on pesticides. There have been some well documented issues with this practice. The trouble is that insects, having a short reproductive cycle and a devious nature, evolve incredibly quickly in response to threats. Like, for example, pesticides. So, in defense, we have to keep upping the ante with new and different pesticides.
So, what’s the problem? Well, in a word, bees. Bees pollinate almost every major food group, and pesticide use is driving them extinct. Bee population has been falling by at least 33% every year in the UK for years. The logic is: all the bees die in a few years, food crops don’t get pollinated, massive harvest failure ensues, everybody starves.
2. Virtual Reality
Virtual reality has long been a staple of science fiction. Forget the bulky goggles and gloves, and let’s talk about a rat with a light in his brain. Scientists at Stanford University have figured out how to directly alter the brain activity of a rat with extreme precision. They started by infecting the brain of the rat with a strain of genetically engineered rabies.
The rabies, instead of simply causing violent brain degeneration and hydrophobia, introduced a photo-sensitivity gene into the brain tissue of the rat, like the cells in the retina. Then scientists then ran a fiber-optic cables into the rat’s brain, and stimulated the rat’s brain tissue using pulses of light. In this way, they were able to steer the rat around.
So what does this mean for your holodeck fantasies? First, some frequencies of light can penetrate the skull very easily. Without breaking the skull, a laser could paint stimulation directly into your brain, producing images, tastes, smells, and sensations. One injection (admittedly of genetically engineered rabies), and you could interact directly with your brain in ways never experienced before.
You could have any fantasy you could think of. You’d have a whole world engineered to serve you. You would earn enough money to sustain the computer and a nutrient drip and you’d never have to be unhappy again. Existential angst getting you down? Find the neurons that store the memory that the world you’re in isn’t real, and cauterize them away. Live out the rest of your life in happy fantasies. It would be the best, cheapest, and most socially acceptable drug ever invented. What could go wrong?
1. Artificial Intelligence
Currently, there’s a big stir about labor-sector jobs being devalued by cheap labor from out of the country. While largely driven by paranoia, varying levels of racism, and a dramatic lack of confidence in job skills, the basic mechanism has been seen before – every time labor in a certain job gets cheaper, there’s unemployment, followed by an industrial boom and then labor demand returns to something like it’s old levels to maintain the industrial boom. Every time this happens, the people whose jobs are being cheapened do the sensible, responsible thing: panic like squirrels on amphetamines.
So, what does this have to do with technology? No matter what happens, intellectual labor has been safe in the past. There’s just no cheap way to manufacture philosophers or scientists or teachers, or even engineers. Now, imagine if there was. Let’s say you have a menial office job. You’re a secretary, or maybe a receptionist, or (god forbid) a telemarketer.
And, let’s say some clever bugger riding the tide of Moore’s law writes some software that does what you do. It works pretty well. If you speak slowly, it can usually understand what you’re saying. It can do basic functions of your job, and there’s a patch coming out soon that’ll add a group of new functions. You don’t worry too much about it, because it’s expensive and buggy, and they just can’t beat human labor. Then a few years later they do, and you’re out on your butt to a piece of software that doesn’t need to be paid.
As software improves, it’s going to wipe out intellectual grunt labor first. Chips keep getting denser and the software gets smarter and capable of doing more jobs. Software engineers? Teachers? Scientists? At some point, we may declare certain kinds of software to be legal persons. Will that make much of a difference? Even software that wants to be paid beats a human – no cost of living, no sick days, impossibly fast work. At some point, human competition won’t be practical.
In summary, the machines may wipe us out, not by killing us, but by being better at what we do than we are.
And, before you comfort yourself that it’s impossible, or a long way off, consider that genetic algorithms can already engineer circuits that not only work, but that work in ways that no human being can really comprehend.
Now that’s scary.