The scientists, engineers and philosophers pondering the reshaping of humankind see three scenarios.
There are those who think we're bound for a near-future technological "heaven" in which we conquer suffering, stupidity, ugliness, even death.
Then there are those who think powers of such scope could be used for supreme evil in the next 25 years, threatening the very existence of our species — the "hell" scenario.
Finally, there are those who have sufficient faith in human cussedness that they think we will be able to control our futures rather than be the pawns of technology — the "prevail" scenario.
Ethically, intellectually, technologically — it won't be easy for us to choose. Yet we must.
As the instruments of change, Garreau identifies four "GRIN" technologies:
We are at a turning point in history. For millenniums our technologies — fire, clothes, agriculture, cities, space travel — have been aimed outward at modifying our environment. Now, for the first time, our technologies are increasingly aimed inward — at altering our minds, memories, metabolisms, personalities and progeny.
This is not some science fiction future. Such innovations are in the labs and hitting the market on our watch. Inexorable increases in ingenuity are opening vistas, especially in what we may call GRIN — genetic, robotic, information and nano — technologies.
There is no doubt that he sees the revolutionary potential of nanotech:
Nanotechnology refers to building objects and substances one atom or molecule at a time. The results can be amazing, including forms of carbon that exist by the beaker-full that are 60 times stronger than steel, have the weight of plastic, sport the clean electrical conductivity of diamond and display the precision of DNA.
Nanotechnology is projected to be a trillion-dollar industry by 2015 — comparable to the total GNP of Canada. Some say it will revolutionize everything: warfare, energy use, medicine.
Garreau concludes with his humanistic (optimistic?) hopes:
The measure of success in the "prevail" scenario that I hope for would not be how many transistors we can get to talk to each other. That way merely leads to the other two scenarios, in which our future is technologically determined and we are just along for the ride. Rather, "prevailing" in the midst of such radical evolution would be measured by the richness, depth, variety and ease of the most important connections — the ones among unpredictably clever humans like ourselves.
CRN sometimes is accused of overstating the beneficial possibilities of advanced nanotechnology -- hyping what Garreau calles the "heaven" scenario. Other critics, of course, say CRN focuses too much on the dangers of molecular manufacturing -- emphasizing the "hell" scenario.
In reality, we expect something in-between to occur, perhaps along the lines of the "prevail" scenario. But even that won't be easy. Unless we start soon, our future may be chosen for us through our inaction.