July 31, 2010
2010 Singularity Summit

The 2010 Singularity Summit is coming up on August 14-15 at the Hyatt Regency in SF. If you are thinking about attending then Michael Vassar tells me this link will get you a $100 discount.

Ray Kurzweil will be presenting his argument on why we are approaching the poit where technological advance starts accelerating so fast that society will be radically transformed in a very short period of time. Ramez Naam (a FuturePundit reader he tells me) will be presenting a talk called The Digital Biome about how sequencing all of the species of life will provide us with information that'll help us genetically reengineer the biosphere. A rather audacious line of argument.

Exponential technologies offer the promise not only of changing the human condition, but of radically altering the face of the planet on which we dwell. Within the next 20 years we will have sequenced the genome of every known species on the earth and tremendously advanced our understanding of how to utilize those genes and reprogram those organisms to alter the biosphere. Biosphere engineering will play a major role in overcoming current environmental and resource challenges, including finite reserves of fossil fuels and looming changes to the earth’s climate. That is just the beginning. An understanding of the complete biome genome will bring tremendous agility in combating future infectious disease outbreaks, in creating new sensors and manufacturing capabilities, and in revolutionizing food. Biosphere engineering and its underlying technologies will allow us to dramatically raise the population carrying capacity of the planet to tens of billions of individuals at least. With effective technology to sculpt the planetary biome, the limits of the number of humans that can live on the planet, and the quality of life of each, at tremendously higher than they appear to be today. This talk will explore some of the lower bounds of what's possible with control of the biome.

My own reaction: You know all those computer viruses? That's nothing compared to what will happen once really cheap microfluidic devices combined with really easy-to-use software enables teenagers to create new lifeforms. Throw in countries (and business interests) competing with each other by releasing highly well crafted organisms that reengineer the climate and ecosphere in ways that conflict with the national interests of other governments. In other words: The result is probably not going to be utopian.

As for raising the carrying capacity of the planet to tens of billions of people: If we raise our carrying capacity that high and then the number of humans on the planet increases into the tens of billions then we will end up returning to a Malthusian Trap. See Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World for an overview of why humanity spent most of its existence in Malthus' trap and how most of us have escaped it - at least for now. If we end up needing to support tens of billions of people then I think a return to that Malthusian Trap is inevitable. Either humanity eventually controls its growth or we run out of supplies once we've harnessed most of the solar system (and it takes too much mass and energy to leave to get more resources elsewhere).

If we are lucky or smart then in the future we will:

  • Cure aging and give ourselves youthful bodies that last thousands of years or longer.
  • Avoid getting wiped out by robots or nanobot goo.
  • Avoid falling back into a Malthusian Trap with 100 billion humans at war with each other.
  • Avoid getting our ecosphere wiped out by genetic script kiddies or sovereign governments.
  • Prevent our absorption into a Borg consciousness (could even be competing Borgs).
  • Avoid splitting off into genetically engineered post-homo sapiens species that are not compatible with each other (e.g. genetically engineered mutually incompatible value systems).

I think the odds are against us being that lucky and smart. I hope I'm wrong.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 July 31 03:05 PM  Transhumans Singularity

kurt9 said at July 31, 2010 6:42 PM:

The only real issue brought up here is untrammeled human reproduction. Fortunately, this problem seems to be resolving itself. Much of the developing world is starting into the same demographic transition as the developed world. Even the Islamic Republic of Iran has below-replacement fertility. It seems that once the wealth level increases to a 2nd world level and women get educated and empowered, the birth-rate declines on its own. It appears to be a universal phenomenon. The other issues cited here are SF fantasies.

Randall Parker said at July 31, 2010 7:05 PM:


No, I brought up multiple issues. No, the other issues are not SF fantasies. They are in our real future.

But regards untrammeled human reproduction:

- Africa remains in the Malthusian Trap. Check out a world fertility map.
- Afghanistan's fertility rate remains very high. Ditto Yemen. See same map.
- Some groups have high fertility rates in spite of living in Western countries.
- The groups with high fertility rates are being selected for.

K.T.Kendrick said at July 31, 2010 7:31 PM:

You are right.

Ramez Naam said at July 31, 2010 9:04 PM:

Randall - glad my talk caught your interest. :) I hope you're there at the Singularity Summit and I can address some of your concerns!


CyclemotorEngineer said at August 1, 2010 10:05 AM:

"Throw in countries (and business interests) competing with each other by releasing highly well crafted organisms that reengineer the climate and ecosphere in ways that conflict with the national interests of other governments."

I just saw "The Future of Food," which described Monsanto's approach to controlling canola farming. Monsanto developed a canola plant which is resistant to their broad spectrum herbicide. They patented the plant. Monsanto bought influence to obtain and enforce patent rights. The company used its dubious patent rights prevent farmers from saving canola seeds, even if they didn't use Round-up (TM)! The seed blows everywhere, so every field has some of Monsanto's plant. Everybody infringes. Nobody saves their seed because Monsanto will sue. Diversity in the plant species is lost. If this is where the genetic engineering of food is taking us, it will apparently benefit corporations like Monsanto at the great expense of everybody else.

sabril said at August 1, 2010 12:34 PM:

I agree that the slacking off of fertility rates cannot be expected to last.

1. Humans can be analogized to a colony of bacteria;

2. Modernization (which includes effective birth control) can be analogized to an incomplete dose of antibiotics.

Modernization is impeding the reproduction of 99% of humans so that the net population numbers are levelling off. But the ultimate effect
will be to (in effect) kill most people off and immunize the population. After that, population growth can be expected to increase again absent some other factor (a big "if," of course).

As for the SF fantasies, they are still real issues of concern. Fundamentally, the cost and difficulty of causing mass destruction is arguably dropping all the time as technology improves. How will this trend play out?

gyorgy Magyary said at August 1, 2010 1:30 PM:

It's really very interesting.
In fact we need not reach the extreme Malthusian. The volume of the biomass on Earth has no way of keeping self sustained more than 4 billion humans.
The timing of regeneration of the biomass makes sustainability impossible because it requires cycles of seven years to enable self sustained.
I want to see someone make religious, political and financiers want to accept the harsh reality when dogmatically preach the infinite growth. That obviously does not exist; the actual physical Planck constant in everything we use is based exactly on the finiteness of growth or division.

PacRim Jim said at August 1, 2010 2:07 PM:

I look forward to the day when we humans can hold our technological singularity conventions inside an astronomical singularity. Doubularity?

Randall Parker said at August 1, 2010 4:39 PM:


Great analogy. Yes, humans will basically develop a resistance to the fertility-lowering effects of modernity and the Malthusian Trap will return.

I do not see how to prevent this short of some sort of global dictatorship. A Borg consciousness could prevent it too. But that's a lot like a dictatorship but more thorough.

CyclemotorEngineer said at August 1, 2010 8:00 PM:

Sabril and Randall,

How about limiting access to strong life-extending medical technology to those with less than two children? If you want to live past 100, there is a price... I suspect that many would pay, if the quality of life past 100 allows physical activity and mental acuity.

karadril said at August 2, 2010 4:29 AM:

If you really want to keep the world population constant, the number of newborns should equal the number of deaths. I could imagine some kind of lottery: if you win you are allowed to have a baby. I doubt it if such a policy would ever make it in the real world though: far too unpopular + the anti-aging cure will probably evolve gradually, therefore lessening the ethical debates.

By the way Randall, I share your concern about the microfluidic genetic scripts: undoubtedly these devices will be easily available in the near future. Nowadays if somebody decides to get a thrill out of creating a home-made bomb the worst he can do is harm a (relatively small) number of people. When you start making things that replicate biologically things could get nasty real fast (plus you don't even need the intention to make something dangerous, it could be harmful by accident as well). Still, there's no stopping evolution, so we'll just have to see how it plays out and if our society can handle the risk.

Lono said at August 2, 2010 10:05 AM:

karadril and Randall,

Agreed - as someone with both a background in molecular biology and computer science - this idea of runaway genetic homebrew honestly scares the piss outta me!


I disagree with your derisive opinion - I believe all the scenarios Randall put out were realistic and well thought out - if a little more big picture.


While probably a Borg like hive mind would be the optimum scenario for Mankind - I myself am still pushing for the more freedom loving Global Scientific Dictatorship - one engineered so subtly and efficiently that most citizens - over time - will not intuitively feel like they are really controlled at all.

(and as we move out into space certain border worlds/outposts could serve as a steam valve for dissent or minority groups tolerance)

Nick G said at August 2, 2010 10:16 AM:

Roughly 5% of children don't make it to adulthood, and roughly 25% never have a child. So, if we were to licence everyone for a maximum of 1 child, in the long-term population would stabilize and fall.

Of course, a voluntary approach would work far, far better. Heck, right now countries like Italy, Russia and Japan are using public policy to raise birth rates, not limit them. I think a voluntary approach will work just fine.

It's time we retire Malthus' theories to the wasteheap of speculation where they belong, and get busy fostering the conditions which enable population stability worldwide in every location, specifically a) economic security for all, especially those disabled by age-related conditions, but probably also including illness, mental health, and substance abuse, b) mandatory high-quality education including good science education (that will go a long ways to dealing with Mormons, Amish et al); c) universal access to all means of family planning (ditto on Mormons); and d) gender equality, including access to items a-c (also ditto).

Nick G said at August 2, 2010 10:25 AM:

As far as high fertility religous groups are concerned - we need to concentrate on assimilating them (like the Borg!).

Consider the Catholic example: US catholics have a fertility rate that is now identical to the general population. Mexican immigrants have high fertility, but this drops in later generations.

It would require many generations to have a large impact on genetics. Further, is there any evidence that the Amish or Mormons have a genetically higher fertility rate? I doubt it: it's just a bunch of people who happened to be captured by an especially authoritarian culture by historical accident, and have been stuck there ever since. Again, we need to assimilate them, not fear them (resistance is futile....).

Chris T said at August 2, 2010 12:01 PM:

"Within the next 20 years we will have sequenced the genome of every known species on the earth"

Sequencing is easy, understanding what any of it is doing is hard. As it turns out, genetics is far more complicated than we ever dreamed of.

The range and breadth of biology makes our technology look pathetic in comparison (and I say this as a technophile). It will be a long time before we can match, much less exceed it.

Randall Parker said at August 2, 2010 5:28 PM:

Chris T,

Automation will speed up discovery of mechanisms too. When microfluidic devices get put into racks by the millions and their experiments are controlled by software that generates and tests hypotheses a lot of stuff will get figured out in a hurry.

KT said at August 3, 2010 12:47 PM:

That's exactly why we need Friendly AI as quickly as possible. Our odds without it aren't too good...

Nick G said at August 3, 2010 1:00 PM:

As long as it's not designed to reproduce...

Chris T said at August 3, 2010 4:46 PM:

Please no more gene association studies...

"When microfluidic devices get put into racks by the millions and their experiments are controlled by software that generates and tests hypotheses a lot of stuff will get figured out in a hurry."

Which is great for biochemistry, but there's still a bit of a leap for figuring out how that translates into phenotype expression and then figuring out how environmental changes affect gene expression from there (which we'll likely need the whole organism for). We're just getting started.

I'm not arguing that it can't or won't be done, just that it's a bit more complicated than is being expressed here.

Avenist said at August 3, 2010 9:46 PM:

Looks like the world-saving control freaks are out in force.

Please try to control only yourselves and don't spread your 'how everything should be run' beliefs to the rest of the world. Those beliefs are designed to function in the world inside your heads, not the real world (and the people therein) outside your heads. Your morality is as peculiar to you as your genetics are.

...as our psychopaths go rolling along

What_the_Hec said at August 4, 2010 8:32 PM:

So, how are bullet points 1 (live for 1000 years) and 3 (billions of humans in war) not in contradiction?

Jennifer said at October 10, 2010 5:10 PM:

This is a pretty funny take on Naam's utopian ideas about bioshere engineering.

I think that the bit about teenagers hacking the genome code is especially imaginative. Never thought of that, but I guess it is a possibility! I think that it is also a very interesting point that you make about the possibility of countries and corporations using this technology in nefarious ways. I can only imagine a world where genetically engineered bio-organisms are a commodity to be bought, sold and exploited. That brings up an entire slew of additional ethical issues.

I am graduate student at Pratt Institute and am currently working on a branding project for which one component is an online community. I used Naam's idea about engineering the biosphere as a jumping off point for a hypothetical company. We are currently discussing the ethical implications of this type of technology on my site.

Join the discussion if you get a chance!


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