According to futurist José Cordeiro, advances in neuroscience, nano, bio, and information technology are pushing mankind into the post-human age.
Forget flying cars and robot butlers. If José Cordeiro has it his way the future will be a far more interesting place. What's more, it may be coming sooner than many of us ever imagined.
A member of Nasa's Singularity University and global think-tank The Millennium Project, Cordeiro is one of an increasing number of researchers encouraging everyone from schoolchildren to business leaders to think big – very big – about the future. Do you want mental powers of calculation that make the most powerful supercomputer of today seem like an abacus? No problem. Do you want to beam your thoughts directly into the minds of others? Technology will provide the means to do so. It will even, Cordeiro proclaims, grant us immortality.
Since abandoning a career in petroleum exploration and financial consulting, Cordeiro has made a name for himself as an in-demand writer, researcher and speaker, along the way building up an impressive CV. As well as his positions in the Singularity University and the Millennium Project, he is involved with more than a dozen organisations and institutions, has appeared in national newspapers in Japan, Korea, the US, France and Brazil, and has shared his ideas about the future at several prestigious conferences including TEDx Rio+20.
To refer to him as 'a character' would be something of an understatement. He signs his emails 'futuristically yours', cites his place of birth as Caracas, Venezuela, America, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way, Universe, Multiverse, and is a dedicated wearer of loud Aloha shirts. But despite this, and the fact that he frequently punctuates his many sprawling ideas with groan-inducing dad jokes, it's clear there's a lot of heavy-duty thinking going on behind that impish grin.
For some, no doubt, many of Cordeiro's ideas and predictions will seem more than a little far-fetched. But, according to others, so they should: as far-fetched as possible in fact. For advances in technology, they claim, are being propelled by a phenomenon known as the Law of Accelerating Returns.
"I basically concentrate on the four main technologies: nano; bio; info and cogno," he states. "All of these are becoming more information-based. And the advancement of information technologies changes according to Moore's Law, or more precisely, the Law of Accelerating Returns. Moore's Law is only the fifth example of the various iterations of the Law of Accelerating Returns. There will be a sixth and a seventh. Information technology, nanotechnology, biotechnology – all follow these exponential curves."
Formulated by futurist Ray Kurzweil in the 1999 book 'The Age of Spiritual Machines', the Law of Accelerating Returns states that the rate of technological change is exponential rather than linear. This results in the creation of a positive feedback loop in which technology feeds on itself getting faster and faster with each step forwards. Not only does the processing power of the technology increase but the rate of change itself also increases dramatically.
There will reach a point, Kurzweil claims, when these exponential increases advance so rapidly that there will be "a rupture in the fabric of human history". This theoretical point is known as the technological singularity as it is impossible for the unenhanced human mind – that is, one not modified by and integrated with technology – to comprehend what will occur beyond it. Both Kurzweil and Cordeiro predict it will occur in 2045.
It is this integration of man and machine, and the enhancement of the human mind and body, that Cordeiro recently spoke about at a meeting of the London Futurists held in London's Lincoln Inn Fields. The message many left with following a day of discussion and debate was a provocative one: we will soon be living in an age of cyborgs.
"It will begin with people that have problems," Cordeiro says. "Like blind people, deaf people or paraplegic people. In a way, they don't have anything to lose. If you don't have eyesight, you can't see, then you won't worry about experimenting with your eyes. They are already replacing lenses in people's eyes when they have cataracts. They can give people sight that is better than mine. Because my eyes are fine, I don't want to change them yet. But someone will try. What we have now is just baby steps compared to what we are going to have in only five years."
To serve as his example Cordeiro points not only to current wearable technology but to the humble spectacles as a precursor to integration between man and machine.
"Actually I use glasses; this is already an integration with technology," he says. "My mobile phone is an integration with technology. We are doing this already. I read earlier that Samsung is working on a new product that is like Google Glass, but they are using a contact lens instead. Google Glass is just one step. We are going to integrate more and more with the technology. We will have the technology in our bodies."
Key to grasping Cordeiro's ideas is to see the bigger picture of how different technologies feed into and affect one another. Running concurrently with developments in computer hardware and software are similarly impressive advances in nanotechnology and biotechnology. The human genome was successfully sequenced in April 2003 by the Human Genome Project (HGP), an international, collaborative research programme. It took 13 years and cost $2.7bn (£1.75bn). Now, partial genomes can be sequenced for as little as $5,000 in just several hours. Cordeiro has already had his own genome read and takes pleasure in passing on the finding that he is distantly related to both Marie Antoinette and Genghis Khan.
"First of all, the human genome is not that big. It's only three gigabytes," he says. "So people have to realise we are not talking about huge numbers. Now we are reading the genome, which is relatively simple – it has only four letters: A, G, C, U – so we understand the genetic code and can read it. We are learning to write it, so we can actually create new organisms, new life-forms with different genes. There has already been an artificial virus created... artificial bacteria. And soon we will create other artificial organisms by connecting genes."
An organism called Synthia
The breakthrough he is referring to is the work of Craig Venter, a key member of the HGP, who in May 2010 produced a synthetic organism. Venter and his team first sequenced the genetic code of Mycoplasma genitalium, a tiny bacterium, and recorded it on a computer. They then used this code as a template, modified it slightly from the original and implanted it in a cell, which had had all of its original DNA removed. The resulting organism, somewhat playfully nicknamed 'Synthia', then started to replicate – an attribute considered by many to be the basic definition of life.
It was a truly impressive piece of research which opened up a fierce debate on ethics that stretched far beyond the scientific community. But for Cordeiro, creating synthetic bacteria and going no further is simply not ambitious enough. He has grander goals in mind.
"Writing genomes is about 20 years behind reading genomes. Now that we are reading the genomes we will have a good understanding in the next ten years of all of the genes. When we know the genes we can manipulate them and change them and combine them differently. We are talking about maybe 30 to 40 years [when] we will be able to create large genetically modified organisms with different genes."
The brain too is the subject of much study with several research groups across the globe attempting to create synthetic grey matter. The EU-supported Human Brain Project, the Blue Brain Project in Switzerland, and the Riken Institute in Japan are all working on producing the first fully functioning synthetic brain.
Cordeiro argues that the human brain has remained largely unchanged for 60,000 years. He predicts that in the future we will be upgrading our brains every few years in the manner that we currently update our computer hardware. He likens the potential developments lying ahead to the increase in portable storage media, which progressed from the punch card to the floppy disk and to the thumb drive. Our natural brains are, he claims, akin to the punch card.
"It's terrible," he says. "I would like to emphasise that there will be a big difference, for example, in terms of the speed when our brains are upgraded. Our brains are slow. They don't even go as fast as one kilohertz because they work with big chemical ions that are very slow. Electronics work with electrons that move incredibly fast, so the difference between these chemical ions and electrons is in the order of millions. Any computer works at more than one gigahertz yet our brains work only at one kilohertz so artificial brains and human enhanced brains will be millions of times faster."
This, Cordeiro says, will mark the ushering in of the post-human age. So does this mean that we are all going to be Da Vincis and Van Goghs in the future?
"No. Much more than that," he deadpans. "Let's compare our brain to a chimpanzee brain or to a mouse brain; you may say that a little mouse doesn't have any creativity or imagination like we do, so imagine now we will create something better than our brains that will enhance our own. Remember, our brains are the product of random evolution and we are creating things by design. I believe enhanced brains and artificial brains will be much more creative and innovative than our brains and also millions of times faster. This whole conversation we are having now would be done in one second."
For some, these ideas will no doubt raise a series of alarm bells. The modification of genes and close integration of the body with technology throws up a whole range of moral and ethical questions. Sceptics are likely to ask what, if anything, is left of the human.
"I like to think about what is left of our genetic ancestors when they evolved into something closer to us," Cordeiro explains. "This is evolution. Evolution tries to improve and I think our descendants will be much more intelligent, much more handsome, faster... everything. I don't like to discriminate in favour of humans, like I don't like to discriminate against humans. Humans are not the end of evolution. We are just the beginning of conscious technological evolution.
"I am being very provocative. I want people to realise that things are moving so fast that we are not ready for the changes. My personal view, not that of the Millennium Project or the Singularity University, is that this is going to happen. We are going to reach a Cambrian explosion of new life forms because we will be able to modify ourselves in many different ways."
There is, however, one small caveat.
"It may not be for all of humanity. I grew up in South America and we have a lot of Indians in the Amazon who don't wear clothes, they don't use glasses, they don't speak modern languages. Another example would be the Amish in Pennsylvania. They are living 100 years behind. The Amazonian Indians are living thousands of years behind. So maybe some people will remain as they are today, and that is okay. But I think most people would like to live longer and healthier, and this is happening from both sides from the hardware, nano and bio, and the software, info and cogno. We are going to reach immortality of the hardware and software in 20 to 30 years. I'm actually very excited. The year 2045 is used as the year of the singularity because that's when we will reach hardware and software immortality."
Of course, whether Cordeiro's many predictions end up coming true remains to be seen. However, one thing at least seems clear – the future isn't what it used to be.