Humans...No big deal

One view of Humanity, I don't agree with it completely, but it does highlight the issue of scientific advancement and the need for greater responsibility by all of us on the planet...

Not so special after all

Advances in science may reduce humans to the pets of machines in 100 years, write Ian Sample, David Adam, Alok Jha and Simon Rogers.

Humans have always thought of themselves as special, and with good reason. As far as we know, we are alone in the universe in churning out art and literature, in formulating the laws of physics and in creating the spectacle that is morris dancing.

But our view of ourselves as the pinnacle of life has suffered huge blows at the hands of science. Every now and again comes an idea so revolutionary that it rocks the foundations on which our hubris is built.

Three upheavals in scientific thinking have served to remind us that we are not so special after all, says V.S. Ramachandran, director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition at the University of San Diego.

First came the Copernican revolution in the 16th century. The Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus argued that the Earth was not at the centre of the solar system. Instead, he relegated our planet to one of many orbiting the sun.

Copernicus wasn't the first to come up with a heliocentric model, but his description was backed up with mathematics that meant it was taken far more seriously. "At once, the whole notion that Earth was special was rendered obsolete, and that must have been pretty humbling," says Ramachandran.

If Copernicus ruffled feathers by saying the Earth wasn't special, Charles Darwin got personal more than 300 years later by implying that humans weren't special either.

With the publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin promoted his theory of evolution via natural selection, immediately suggesting that humans were just another kind of animal.

"It meant we weren't the crowning glory of evolution, we were just hairless apes that happened to be slightly cleverer than our cousins," says Ramachandran.

"It was a great shock. Victorian women fainted when they heard about it."

Nearly a century later, James Watson and Francis Crick, two scientists in Cambridge, unravelled the structure of DNA. This led to a further challenge to human arrogance. We were, in short, simply vessels of self-replicating molecules, whose only purpose was to pass them on to another generation.

So what's next? What will be the fourth revolution? And will it, like those before, force us to question once more what it means to be human? Here are the views of six of the world's top scientists.

Seth Shostak, senior astronomer, Seti Institute, California The amount of computing power you can buy for $1000 doubles every 18 months. It's hardly speculative to declare that by 2020 your desktop will have more operational horsepower than a human brain.

Many people who work in machine intelligence believe that, with the right arrangement of hardware and software, you really can build a thinking machine. Not just a device that beats everyone at chess; a machine that can write fiction, do physics research or be amusing at parties. If you doubt this, then you are forced to concede that there's something miraculous going on under our hats. Is there some good reason that one organ of the body - the one in your skull - has a function that can't be replicated? That's hubris of a fine sort; a kind of self-defence concocted by the very organ under examination.

It strikes me as likely that, sometime this century, we will build a thinking computer. That machine will run the planet. Competitive pressures will ensure this (if we don't have a machine running our society, we'll fall behind those that do). We will no longer be the smartest things on Earth. Our mantle of superiority will be donned by our own creations.

Then what? Will the machines get rid of us? A machine that dwarfs our intelligence might regard us as we regard goldfish. Our role may be to serve as pets for the sentients in charge.

All of this would be dismaying enough if it were merely a science fiction story. But I suspect the first steps will be taken by mid-century. We could well be the last generation of humans to dominate Earth.

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