It is a commonplace to say that the rate of change in the world today is faster than it has ever been. Every generation in recent times has thought this, but today more than ever it seems true: whether it be innovations in computing and social media, or the rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI), or new forms of finance such as cryptocurrencies, or even populism’s assault on traditional politics, the one constant seems to be that nothing is constant, everything is in flux.
An independent economic consultancy, Llewellyn Consulting, has suggested that there may be as many as 100 new technologies all at the point where they are about to transform society. Even allowing for the fact that at least some of the technologies they cite are likely to be more incremental changes to established practices (ie, doing something better) rather than fundamental ones (ie, doing something different), this is a large total, and the authors claim that taking all these many and various technologies together, we are going through a revolution every bit as big as, and entirely distinct from, the Industrial Revolution.
Given that the world has probably only had two major Revolutions in mankind’s history (the Agricultural Revolution, from hunter-gatherer to grower-reaper, some 12,000 years ago and the Industrial Revolution, from prosperity-from-labour to prosperity-from-capital), and the second of the two was only 250 years ago, it is a bold claim to say we are about to see a third.
We do have some sympathy with this claim; indeed we have ourselves written on the subject before (see our article “Inequality and the Licence Economy”, 11.12.16). But although from today’s vantage point, ie still close to the beginning of the 21st century, it is the impacts of developments in computing and AI that loom large, we increasingly think that when the current century is viewed from the other end, ie by people in the year 2100 looking back, it will be known for something else completely, something that has barely begun to register in the public consciousness.
We believe that the “next big step for mankind”, the single development that the 21st century will eventually be known for, will turn out to be not the enhancement and augmentation of our minds by technology (that is, the advances in AI), but the transformation of our bodies. We would suggest that mankind is on the threshold of medical advances which will make the advances in health and medicine of the 20th century, magnificent as they were, look like small steps.
Let us call this, for the sake of a shorthand label, the Medical Revolution. On one level this Revolution includes the growing number of ways in which medical science is creating technology-enhanced humans. Now there is nothing inherently new in this; indeed mankind has been using tools to improve and overcome his physical frailties ever since the first caveman felt cold and created clothing – an enhancement on our species’ otherwise insufficient fur – and from there via people using walking sticks, to the use of spectacles, to the use of heart pacemakers, to the use of artificial limbs connected to the nervous system, each step is merely a matter of degree. Each of these developments is, to use the language we introduced earlier, an incremental change – even the last of them, amazing though the medical technology of prosthetics is – and as incremental changes, they have all been accepted more or less easily by society at large.
But we are approaching the ability to alter our DNA; indeed science can already alter DNA in animals and altering human DNA will surely follow. We would argue that this is radically different from all of the previous enhancements we have listed above, because rather than using a tool to change how we interact with the outside world, we will for the first time be using tools to change who we are. Again, in the language we introduced earlier, this would we think be a fundamental change rather than an incremental one, and as with all fundamental changes, it will undoubtedly pose much larger questions to society.
Inevitably once designer-DNA is possible, people will want it, and equally inevitably at first only the very rich will be able to pay for it, and one risks a growing divide between an enhanced elite and the rest of society which if not checked could lead to a two tier human race, with the gap between the super-elite and the rest of humanity growing over time to be substantial.
What this will imply for relationships between the two types of humans is hard to predict, though it will certainly pose both practical and ethical questions. Will the elite still feel it necessary to educate the masses, for example, or invest in their health – or even care about their general welfare? The precedent for how white settlers in eg Africa, Australia or Argentina treated those countries’ indigenous populations in the 19th century, in which those deemed useful were enslaved and those not were largely exterminated, is not encouraging.
Beyond that, there is the even bigger issue of mortality. Even the most advanced medical science today focuses mainly on delaying ageing and repairing the body’s faults, but it is no longer completely unreasonable to think of not delaying ageing but reversing it, and not repairing the body but renewing it. This opens the possibility of life expectancy not increasing by 2 years a decade, as at present, but perhaps 20 or even 200 years; indeed serious scientists are talking of people living for 300, 500, even 1,000 years.
If such claims prove to be even only partially true, we will have to change not just our expectations for ourselves (and in particular our expectations of when we retire), but also the very fabric of society. Of course the consequences for the pension industry, to name but one, are earth-shattering, but it goes beyond that. We will all be like Prince Charles, waiting in vain for the older generation to give way. How will people in their 20s react to having 3, 4, 5 generations above them, watching them, lecturing them, dominating them, keeping them out of good employment. What age will we expect people to start their working life (and who will pay for them before then – education, board and lodging, etc). How will we house and feed everyone?
And – perhaps most interestingly of all – what will it do for us as a risk-taking species? Humans have always taken risks; it is how we as a species progress. But if a premature death costs not just a decade or two of potential life but several centuries, will we in fact become too scared to risk all?
Technological change is upon us, and it may even deserve capitalising as the Technological Revolution. But we offer the thought that the coming Medical Revolution will in the end probably be the more significant, and that the historians of the future are more likely to look back on the 21st century as not so much the age of technology and the internet as the age of enhanced humans, the conquering of old age and the dawn of a new meaning of humanity.
 The distinction is not unimportant to the economy because companies will find adapting to incremental technological change much easier than adapting to fundamentally new technologies: with incremental changes, they may be able to tweak their business model to survive, whereas with fundamental changes, tweaking is unlikely to be sufficient. We would for example suggest that electric cars represent an incremental change, while self-drive cars probably represent a fundamental one. And the change that teleportation would bring, if it is ever perfected, would certainly be fundamental if not revolutionary.