Like the girders of a skyscraper, technology is the framework on which the human edifice is constructed. Since the Enlightenment, a central tenet of Western civilization has been the Idea of Progress, a belief that history is a process of humanity constantly improving itself. While this process is held to be immanent and inexorable, encompassing the arts, science, economics, and politics, it is in technology that the Idea of Progress finds its clearest expression. From the harnessing of fire to the forging of metal implements to the Industrial Revolution, technology has erected our civilization step-by-step, story-by-story, each advance built upon the ones that preceded it.
Humans are tool-makers and technology is the tools that we create. We are a fallible species with limited vision, however, one that errs as often as it succeeds. Although our tools may be intrinsically amoral, our application of them often produces unanticipated and perverse results.
Consider Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. At the time of its invention in 1793, slavery in America was declining due to a loss in value of crops such as rice, tobacco, and indigo. Cotton farming was also failing as the process of separating fiber from seed by hand (slaves’ hands, of course) was too labor intensive to turn a profit. The introduction of Whitney’s device and its efficiencies triggered a huge increase in cotton production and booming exports to both the Northern states and Europe. More labor than ever was needed to grow and pick the cotton and the moribund African slave trade was suddenly invigorated, the 700,000 slaves in 1790 growing to around 4 million by 1860 while the number of slave states increased from 6 to 15. Thus a technological advance by a Massachusetts Yankee meant to reduce the amount of slave labor had the perverse effect of increasing the slave trade and cementing the “peculiar institution” into the history of the USA and lead, ultimately, to the bloodiest war in American history.
The American Civil War claimed 620,000 lives. It saw the first battlefield use of the machine gun, the first battle between ironclad warships, the first submarine to sink an enemy ship, and the first significant use of aircraft (balloons) in war. Yet it wasn’t until 1881 that James Albert Bonsack, a high school dropout in Roanoke County, Virginia, invented the deadliest machine in human history.
Tobacco was the first cash crop in North America. By the late 19th Century, tobacco was widely consumed, usually in small amounts that were chewed, hand-rolled into cigarettes or, most commonly, smoked from a pipe. The modern tobacco industry wasn’t born until 1881, when U.S. patents 238,640 and 247,795 were granted to Albert Bonsack for his newly invented cigarette-rolling machine. Bonsack then began the mass production of cigarettes, opening a factory that produced 10 million cigarettes in its first year of operation. Five years later, the same factory was producing 1 billion cigarettes each year. Given free to soldiers in both World War I and II, cheap and abundant cigarettes rapidly became a mainstay of American consumer culture.
Of course, we now realize the harmful effects that smoking tobacco has on the human body. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 100 million people died from tobacco use during the 20th Century, a number that dwarfs the genocides of Mao, Stalin, or Hitler, and is greater than the total casualties of World War I and II combined. The WHO is currently warning that 1 billion tobacco-related deaths will occur in the 21st Century if nothing is done to curb tobacco consumption. These staggering figures can be traced back not to the designs of a madman, but to the far humbler work of an inventor seeking to solve a problem and to profit from his solution. Certainly there was no malice in Bonsack’s work nor could he anticipate 100 million deaths, much less 1 billion. Like Whitney, Bonsack simply worked within the constraints of his time, his knowledge incomplete, his intentions honorable, the future opaque.
While technology has long surpassed the gears and levers of the 19th Century, the examples of Whitney and Bonsack remain relevant in considering several emerging technologies and their implications for the future of our species.
Started in 1990 and completed in 2003, the Human Genome Project (HGP) succeeded in sequencing mapping 99% of the human genome. By decoding our DNA, the HGP has spurred a remarkable variety of new technologies in medicine, biotechnology, molecular biology, and evolutionary research. Like all technologies, however, genomic technology is essentially amoral. In 2004, the British Medical Association (BMA) published a report which asserted that “ethnic specific biological weapons may indeed become possible in the near future.” In 2005 the International Committee of the Red Cross stated, “The potential to target a particular ethnic group with a biological agent is probably not far off.” Using the same technologies that were intended to cure disease and save lives, a racist nation or non-state actor could create a weapon that attacked only those of a specific genetic background. Genocide in a vial, no longer confined to sci-fi.
From the myth of Hephaestus building the giant robot Talos to the automata fashioned by Yan Shi, thinking machines have long fascinated humanity. Today, the promise of Artificial Intelligence is already being realized, albeit in a very narrow form. Apple’s Siri, Google’s self-driving cars, even email spam filters are all examples of Weak AI, a kind of Artificial Intelligence that is narrowly focused and strictly limited. Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) describes a truly thinking machine, one that can perform the intellectual tasks of a human and, eventually, greatly surpass human intelligence. Predicted by Google’s Ray Kurzweil to arrive by 2030, AGI will usher in the next stage of human evolution. Coddled in the digital embrace of infinitely intelligent machines, humanity will transcend its biological bodies, become immortal, and expand its consciousness in unimaginable ways. It’s a familiar story, one told in countless sci-fi novels, movies, and comic books. It’s also a story that usually does not end well. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, recently said, “If I were to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that… With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon.” Confronting a mind so advanced as to be beyond our understanding is referred to by futurists as a “technological singularity,” a point in human history so complex that we cannot see what lies beyond its “event horizon.” That such an event is described in the same terms as a black hole, the most destructive force in the universe, is noteworthy. Creating a super-powerful AGI out of a desire to improve the human condition could result in the most perverse and unanticipated technological consequence experienced by humanity.
The tallest man-made structure is the Burj Khalifa, a skyscraper in Dubai. As beautiful as it is incongruous, the building shimmers in the desert air like a mirage. The view from the Burj Khalifa’s observation deck is a dizzying panorama of skyscrapers and artificial lakes spread across the desert, artificial islands that seem to float in the indigo waters of the Persian Gulf, luxury shopping centers nestled amongst stands of palm trees, the filthy labor camps that house the building’s migrant workers tastefully hidden from sight. As humanity perches atop the human edifice erected by our technology, our desire to ascend even higher is rarely tempered by our fear of the fall. Perhaps it is enough that we acknowledge the chasm below us, acknowledge that our intentions are good but our vision is limited, that the perverse and the unanticipated are always with us, that the urge to step off the edge simply means that we want to live.