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Human or Machine. Heads or Tails

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Message Jon Faulkner
Human or Machine. Heads or Tails.
By Jonathan Faulkner

Humans are approaching a future that will force them to revaluate how they see themselves and the world they live in. New technologies will lead them into choices they are ill equipped to make. It's very probable that Genetic Engineering, Robotics and Nanotechnologies will make those choices the most difficult ones that ever confronted human kind. As these technologies develop, they will offer new and better ways for humans to live, while typically disregarding the costs that are always associated with "new" and "better." During the development of the atom bomb, scientists worried about the implications of such enormous destructive power. Even as they developed this ultimate weapon, they stressed its possibilities for peaceful applications. Their fears were consummated with the twin detonations over Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Today, the bomb still hangs like a spectral shadow over the world. Humans can eradicate themselves by the push of a button, and as more nations join the nuclear club the chances of that happening increase with every additional member. Today's technologies will give us the ability to by-pass nature's slow, evolutionary process. They promise greatly enhanced life expectancies, and a world comparatively free of the horrors that have historically plagued humans.

New technologies, without exception, are the harbingers of unintended consequences. The Industrial Age polluted our water and contaminated our air, but it gave millions of people better lives through medical advancements, the mass production and distribution of goods, refined agricultural techniques, vastly improved communications, and so on. It also made possible the deaths of over 60 million people in World War Two, and over 31 million dead in World War One. Today, nuclear waste is an ever growing problem. "Smart bomb," is an oxymoron that only a politician could think of, and a fawning press lend credibility to.

But the bill is only now coming due. Global temperatures are rising with catastrophic results. Our atmosphere, weakened by decades of industrial pollution, is allowing more solar radiation through. Antibiotics, yesterdays wonder drugs, are medicine's Trojan Horse. Many of the infectious bacterium they once controlled have mutated and evolved highly resistant defenses to the antibiotics that were meant to defeat them. Tuberculosis, gonorrhea, malaria and childhood ear infections are increasingly harder to treat because of their resistance to antibiotics. Progress always comes with a price - its interest hidden in the future.

If Americans are to have any influence over their future, they must promote education with determination and resolve. Many of the world's finest university's are in the U.S., where the planet's leading scientists come to share their insight and knowledge. They see the future more clearly than others because they are developing the technologies that will shape it. The world, though increasingly skeptical, still looks to the U.S. for leadership. Apparently unaware that American leadership has been paid for, packaged, and shipped away to its corporate sponsors, many of the world's people look to Americans for inspiration and hope. It should be clear to anyone that neglecting schools and closing libraries is not smart, and it's shameful that Americans tolerate the leadership of a factious moron who has gutted government assistance for higher learning. If Americans are to help lead the world into an unclear and troubling future, they will have to make an unprecedented effort at educating themselves of its perils. Americans, with their rich, diverse culture, their wealth and resources, and their vast, accumulated knowledge, owe themselves and the world these benefits. The fraudulent leaders they suffer should cash out and step aside. The clock is ticking.

Many of today's top scientists and thinkers see a tomorrow where the machines will do all the work and incredibly, the thinking. In twenty years, nanotechnology will shrink personal computers to pocket size. Utilizing individual atoms and molecular structure, they will be a million times faster, enabling humans to design machines that replicate themselves. Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was so frightened by the implications of these new technologies he was willing to murder the scientists who were developing them. Kaczynski wrote, "Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won't be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide."

While no sane person can condone Kaczynski's methods of controlling the advancement of such technologies, he nonetheless exposes a truth that should be worrisome to everyone. Ray Kurzweil invented the first reading machine for the blind and wrote, "The Age of Spiritual Machines," a cutting edge treatise on the future relationship of humans and machines. He says, "The only viable and responsible path is to set a careful course that can realize the promise while managing the peril." His optimism doesn't account for the laws of unintended circumstance. Dr. Frankenstein, consumed by his experiments, created a monster, and when the outraged villagers came to destroy it no one was more surprised than he. In "2001, A Space Odyssey," Hal sets about destroying his human co-pilots. The sci-fi hit, "The Matrix," visit's the same themes. Education is the map humans must have to choose which fork in the road to take. One fork leads to an unknown future, that may, or may not, bring us to another pinnacle of human achievement. The other may destroy us.

Americans can no longer afford government without representation. Congress has surrendered its power to declare war. Under Bush, the National Treasury has been sacked. Americans are now party to the torture of prisoners of war, defying the fundamental tenants of the Geneva Convention. These so called representatives, along with their corporate masters, have got to go, but they may be very difficult to get rid of. With corporate control over electronic voting, it's no longer clear that votes count. As they make their nests in the capital, they busy themselves with turning back the clock at a moment when Americans can least afford it. Democrats have become invisible. Occasionally, one may emit a squeak of protest that is instantly and loudly overwhelmed by an outraged G.O.P. With the full backing of the corporate owned and controlled media, Right Wing Republicans can contrive a deafening racket, successfully drowning any voice opposing them. They are much worse than useless, as an uncertain future closes in.

Today's children will inherit crushing debt and a future they will be ill prepared to cope in. Little is being done to prepare them. Will tomorrows kids have their life work chosen for them? Will they report to an "educational facility" where a chip is implanted in their brains providing them the knowledge they'll need for their jobs? Will others, based on aptitude, be given prosthetic limbs they'll need for strength and durability? Still others may work in the weightless environment of space, where their legs will be an encumbrance - using up limited room and food. Many of the world's best thinkers believe these times are around the corner. How will these technologies square with religious belief? Many will see the incorporation of man and machine as a defilement of the human body. Frightened and confused, they will refuse to accept such a thing - no matter the gain. The way the young are educated must undergo a complete restructuring and will require a massive commitment unrivaled in human history. The science fiction future bearing down on humanity will not be forgiving, and when the train leaves the station, it won't be coming back for those who were late.

Hans Moravec is a leading robotics expert who wrote "Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind." He believes that humans should acknowledge the superiority of robots and simply, "Get out of the way." He says that robots will succeed us, and that humans face certain extinction. He adds, "Human evolution has taken place on a cultural level and therefore replacing biological humans with mechanical machines capable of far greater learning and cultural development is the next logical step in evolution." Marvin Minsky is another leader in the development of artificial intelligence and its implications on humanity's future. He doesn't believe that humans are competent enough to solve many problems they are starting to face. "One solution," he says, "Is to make ourselves smarter - perhaps by changing into machines."

Bill Joy is the chief scientist at Sun Microsystems. He suggests there be oversight by regulatory bodies and Raymond Kurzweil agrees, saying robotic industries could self-regulate. The regulation of industry has a dismal track record. After all, Congressional members today will sell their votes for a few thousand dollars. Imagine, the Honorable this or that being promised near immortality. Congressmen would be fighting among themselves over who would cast the first vote for de-regulation. One need look no further than the deregulation of the S&L,s to appreciate the benefits of deregulation.

Will humans accept their consciousness being downloaded into a machine? Bodies of silicon, plastics and other composite fibers will defeat human frailty, but at what cost? Will the human soul be the first casualty? Will the arts, perhaps the finest evolvement of humanity, be lost as we know them? Who will control these hybrid machines? A tiny elite? Or other, perhaps better developed, self replicating machines. What price will be paid, as science narrows human pursuit to the material, and the spirit is nothing more than an encumbrance. A pact with the Devil? Or Heaven on Earth.

There are no clear solutions because the possibilities are many, and humans can't predict the future. The thoughts of the world's leading thinkers seem to have a common thread. The day is coming, and it seems obvious to many, that machines will be the dominant species. Perhaps humans still have time to prepare themselves, and no matter how tenacious their hold, play some role in their futures.

The Constitution, and the rights it guarantees Americans as a free people, is sound. This document, more than anything else, defines Americans. But like anything of great value it must be protected. The founders made education mandatory so that Americans could read and understand their rights as free people, and so have the knowledge necessary to preserve those rights. Today, that document is under attack. The system of checks and balances are not working. Once, humans everywhere could see a bright light shining from America's shores. That light is now going dim. Americans have opted for The Jerry Springer Show, and Fox News propaganda - trash T.V. They've forgotten their solemn responsibility to the rest of humanity; their responsibility to keep the light burning brightly. Now a fence is built, in place of light, and the commonality of humanities hopes and dreams lies broken in its shadow - a grim portent of the future.

Many Americans can't be bothered to read the document that guarantees their freedoms. How then, can they be expected to learn, and gain any understanding, of the enigmatic changes that new technologies promise? The future is now, and if there's any element of truth in the predictions of the worlds leading thinkers then we haven't a moment to lose. Humans can glimpse their future only through their past.
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Jon Faulkner is a licensed Master Mariner. He has long considered the conservative republican mindset a form of mental illness. He lives in northern Maine.
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