JOEL GARREAU in conversation with DARLENE LIM and BRUCE MAU , hosted by Arthur KENT at the MaRS Collaboration Centre (101 College), Tuesday (October 11), 7:30 pm. $32.50, stu/sr $21. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
According to Washington Post editor Joel Garreau, I'm not really supposed to open my column with the story of the telekinetic monkey. Good articles, even in the technology section, need to begin with stories about people.
"The interesting thing about technology isn't the gear," says Garreau from his Washington office, "it's about how it changes human nature."
Garreau is getting set for a special appearance at the MaRS Collaboration Centre Tuesday (October 11) alongside Mars expert Darlene Lim and Massive Change design guy Bruce Mau.
Garreau started investigating the weird world of cutting-edge technology while writing for the Post's style section in the 90s. "But nobody was paying attention. The Internet was the biggest invention since the printing press, but Monica was on the front page of the paper."
This is because people were focusing on the technology itself rather than its implications for humanity. "We are the first species to control our own evolution," Garreau says. "This really is a turning point in history."
He tells me about some of the projects funded by DARPA (the U.S.'s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) that have the ring of science fiction about them: soldiers who don't need to sleep; commanders who can communicate telepathically; casualties who can grow back limbs.
Some of these projects will work, and some will fail, he reminds me, but all of them call into question basic assumptions about the limits of our biological nature.
The folks working on this "don't wake up thinking about changing human nature," says Garreau. "For them it's just an unintended consequence of tinkering with such powerful technologies."
Garreau sees his role as a journalist as tracking this progress and making it transparent to the people it will effect. "Current conversations about changing the nature of human nature are being held in the halls by the technical elite," he says. "I don't want to leave these decisions to the scientists. I'm a great believer in the power of the masses to weigh in on decisions such as these."
Optimistic futurists like inventor Ray Kurzweil imagine freedom from poverty, disease, even death due to the power of genetic manipulation and of molecule-sized robots that will swarm through our bodies looking for viruses or abnormal cell division.
At the other end of the spectrum are gloomy folk like Sun Microsystems' Bill Joy, who claims that our reliance on these technologies will render us extinct if we don't put the brakes on hyper-intelligent robots and self-replicating nanotechnologies that have the power to wipe us puny mortals out.
"I take these scenarios very seriously," says Garreau. But he himself tends to favour a third scenario, in which humans continue "muddling along" as we always have, sometimes making progress, sometimes making mistakes, but showing remarkable adaptation and creativity along the way.
So now I can tell you about the monkey. Her name is Belle, and from her lab at Duke University her brain has been wired up to the Internet in such a way that she can move a robot 600 miles away - just by thinking about it. "It's a dazzling opportunity," says Garreau. "It's like these scientists have been given the keys to all creation and have taken it out for a spin."