THE CHILD OF THE FUTURE
Will poor Lizzie's brain be prodded and probed from kindergarten on?
2015 Chapter one
SHE IS A female Canadian of European ancestry, the heiress to three passports, two languages, and one enchanted family, born on the last Sunday morning in May, in the Christian year 2005. If health and fate preserve her, she, and her infant comrades, will live to greet the 22nd century, and perhaps to remember the old world into which they were delivered by a mother’s pain or the slice of a surgeon’s blade.
Between now and then—between the known and the unknowable-lies the chasm of my little daughter’s future.
And through all the world go our children, our sons the old world would have made into servile clerks and shopmen... our daughters who were... anxiety-racked mothers or sere, ripening failures; they go about this world glad and brave, learning, living, doing, happy and rejoicing, brave and free...
Something indeed I must have foreseen— or else why was my heart so glad?
-H. G. WELLS, IN THE DAYS OF THE COMET, 1906
Look back 100 years and the world seems not so unfamiliar-electricity and railroads, automobiles and telephones, farms and cities, jobs and schools, wars and elections, the World Series and the Stanley Cup. Men and women—my daughter’s great-grandparents, your immigrant ancestors—scrabbled for sustenance and sailed toward a better life in a brighter land.
Look ahead 100 years and the vision is vastly different—a century dominated by superintelligent machines, where death is optional, imperfect children are impossible, disease is unknown and Nature is a fading memory.
Such is the world that the futurists prophesy. They have told me:
“At some stage, we’ll begin to have problems with machines that can out-think humans, and there’s nothing that humans can do about it. Of course, at that point, if you’re a cyborg, you’re okay.”
“We’ll become prisoners of our own immortality—we won’t go outside, we won’t get on a plane. Why ruin a 110-year-old life?” “A pill for shyness. Full sexual pleasure with no outside stimulation. Digitize feelings and artificially stimulate the brain to feel them. Internet suicide. Smart skin.”
“A scanner in your shower measures your body fat and emails your personal trainer. It knows you ate that illegal piece of cheesecake.” “We used to think that love was about the intimate contact of flesh. But connectivity has redefined what friendship and love really mean. A lot of people feel love for someone that they don’t even know.” “Today, if you don’t have a TV, you’re seen as quite strange. Soon, people will say, ‘You don’t have an implant?”
“What if reproduction is separated from partnering? You marry the person you love, but you select your children from a marketplace of desirable genes.”
“The Bible says that human beings were created in the image of God. If we find life on other planets, and we can communicate back and forth, do we send missionaries to them?”
THE LABOUR already has begun that will configure the life of a Child of the Future. It is the work of scientists, engineers, peddlers, prophets and dreamers. In this centennial issue of Maclean’s, we’ll meet several of each, the authors of all those pungent quotes above.
Your doctor will slip a bonnet on your head and it wifi announce the first warning signs of dementia
Some of them forecast ruin and chaos, while others see a golden age. Many of them speak with confidence and hope about the wonders of genetic manipulation and nanotechnology, wireless communication and Internet refrigerators. They talk glowingly of cameras in our eyeballs, transistors in our skulls and even telepathic T-mail.
And then there is the Venezuelan “transhumanist” I met in Chicago in July who plans to deep-freeze his own severed head, for reattachment to a disease-proof torso in a century or so. We’ll greet him again in the year 2105, just in time for my Lizzie’s 100th birthday—and his 143rd.
Meanwhile, the rest of us are wedged in 2005. As a new father, I marvel more at my daughter’s joyful spirit than at any coming cyber-stuff or gadgets. To me, the most fundamental questions of the century enfold the secrets, and the survival, of the human mind and soul in an age of androids and atoms.
I wonder, should my head be thawed for Lizzie’s own centennial, will I recognize her as a human being, as my great-grandfather would recognize me? Or will she be so augmented and implanted and genetically modified that she—and your kids—hardly will be human at all?
Seeking the answers, I begin my quest in Tokyo, on the campus of the RIKEN Brain Science Institute, the world’s largest research centre devoted exclusively to the study of mentality and intelligence, both biological and cybernetic. Among the goals that RIKEN has set for itself for the year 2017 are:
■ a complete understanding of Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy and Down’s syndrome, and treatments for all of them; a the production of a “brain-style” robot;
■ the production of a computer with emotions and consciousness, one capable of living with humans.
Before my Lizzie gets to high school, then, they aim to build her an artificial boyfriend.
In a laboratory on the second floor at RIKEN, there’s a mannequin sporting a reallife version of the Sorting Hat at Hogwarts School. It’s a bathing cap fitted with 256 electrodes, designed to monitor your brain’s internal electronics and to determine if it is starting to misfire.
This is just a simple prototype. Someday soon, your doctor will slip a bonnet on your head and it will announce the first warning signs of dementia or disease. Or it will be placed on your newborn’s crown at birth and the printout will reveal whether she’s on her way to Oxford... or Kingston Pen.
“We are very close,” says Andrzej Cichocki, the Polish-born head of RIKEN’s Laboratory for Advanced Brain Signal Processing. “In the near future, we will be able to screen someone at 55 and predict Alzheimer’s disease with high probability. Predict, yes, but not cure. But we can give you a first warning—in time to maybe change your diet, maybe change your lifestyle, maybe start yoga.”
That’s just the beginning. Cichocki and his colleagues intend to design a sombrero that can forecast behaviour and temperament as well. The implications of this sort of cerebral soothsaying are vast, and potentially alarming. “The key of our research is how one part of the brain transfers information to another part of the brain,” he says. “We want to learn how this operates for all brains— an educated person’s brain, a noneducated person’s brain, a child’s brain, an aging person’s brain, a criminal’s brain.” It is easy to visualize poor Lizzie being brain-capped on her very first day of kindergarten, a wailing five-year-old being probed for everything from musical virtuosity to the potential for axe murder. “Do we have the right to say to a person that he has the inclination to criminality?” Cichocki muses. “These terrorists, people who commit crimes, they don’t have normal brains. If we can discern this pattern in advance, maybe we can cure these people. But that means mass screening.” “Let’s say that someday they test my daughter as part of a job evaluation,” I suggest. “And if the results look suspicious, the boss fires her, she loses her health and life insurance, and she’ll never get another job.” “That is not a scientific problem,” Cichocki shrugs. “Our immediate goal is to be able to tell a child, your parent is seriously ill. He’s not just old and stupid.”
In Cichocki’s view, advanced brain-signal processing unlocks the swinging door to unimagined wonders. There’s no need to drill into the cranium—as others you’ll meet in this magazine are proposing—to insert a circuit board. It will read what you’re thinking—or make you think what it reads.
“Maybe we will put electrodes in the frame of your glasses,” he suggests. “This could help the handicapped and blind people and the elderly communicate with robots. You would just have to think and the robot would sense your emotional state and try to make kind conversation.
“I am personally against chips being implanted in the brain. This hat offers a noninvasive approach. You put the cap on your skull and while you sleep, you can learn a language or mathematics. Maybe this is dangerous, to bombard the sleeping brain with millions of bits of information. We do not know that yet. But the hat has many potential uses. It could be worn even while making love.”
WITH THIS HAPPY thought in mind, I venture down the hallway, seduced by the lurid perfume of 5,000 tanks of fish.
This is the aquarium of Hitoshi Okamoto—a zoo-ful of inch-long zebra fish, a potential key to how the human brain develops, cell by cell and neuron by neuron. These creatures, which Okamoto is studying “almost paranoiacally,” may prove to be crucial to building that “brain-style robot” that RIKEN promises by 2017.
The Okamoto team is tinkering with the genetic structure of zebra fish and watching how very subtle mutations in their genes affect the structure of their adult brains. (Some of the fish end up with no eyes, but that is part of the enigma.) Figure out how
the fish brain, and by extrapolation the human brain, fabricates itself from a handful of cells, and it might be possible to assemble a laptop with legs that is a lot smarter than we are.
“I’m getting more optimistic about understanding the brain in the next 10 years,” Okamoto says. He’s a roly-poly guy in suspenders with a 14-year-old son and a passion for a juvenile Japanese superhero called Astro Boy.
According to the experts at RIKEN, the crucial difference between “I” and an iMac is our built-in curiosity. So far, computers compute only what we ask them to. But that will soon change, thanks, perhaps, to 5,000 tanks of fish too small for sashimi, out here in the Tokyo suburbs.
“The capability to recognize novelty is an important quality of the brain,” Okamoto says. “Scientists are now noticing that only when we decide what we’re watching is novel is it transformed into a memory circuit. That’s probably the origin of our curiosity. The brain must have that action or it would become overloaded. We’d remember everything.
“Memory is driven by emotion. Emotion
attaches each memory with a value and decides whether to store it permanently.” “How do you know that fish have emotions?” I ask.
“I can definitely say that fish have fear,” Okamoto replies.
“If the heart beats faster and the body temperature increases in the presence of a predator, that means fear, and the fish show that.”
“Do you think they love each other?”
“I think so. They fight to protect their family against members of the same species. Does that count?”
I suddenly realize that I’m sitting at a prestigious Japanese scientific institute, asking whether fish—and computers—can fall in love.
“Love, love, love, love,” sighs Okamoto. “Maybe in 30 years, robotics will achieve the stage at which they can mimic our understanding of brain function. Then we could produce a robot that can feel, detect novelty, and categorize memory according to its value to himself. A robot with an egocentric way of understanding the world. This may be terrifying, or it may also mean robots that can love. But love is very closely linked with reproduction. Robots probably won’t reproduce by themselves, so I’m not sure you should give a robot the capability to love if it can’t reproduce.”
By this point, I’m picturing Lizzie bringing a humanoid home for dinner and saying to me, “Dad, I’d like you to meet G-402B.” But more about robots a little later —in 2065.
I’m picturing Lizzie bringing a humanoid home for dinner. ‘Dad, I’d like you to meet G-402B.’
FOR THE FIRST few years of her life, Lizzie’s world probably will not be that different from today’s. That means a constant bombardment of “reality” television, booty-call music videos, swimsuit editions and nipple rings. Lucky girl.
Like most of her peers, she probably will reach puberty a bit earlier than her Muscovite mother did at age 13, but whether that is due to hormones in animal feed, chemicals in the environment, a cold and absent father (highly unlikely), or some other factor, no one yet knows for sure.
What is certain is that the marketplace will try to sexualize my daughter long before she is emotionally and physically ready for sex.
“We do not have clear boundaries between the generations anymore,” says one of Canada’s leading experts on how little girls and boys grow up. “The grandfather
goes on Viagra to be potent, the grandmother goes to the gym and wears the same clothes as the granddaughter, and the fouryear-old wears a G-string.”
I’m talking with Dr. Franziska Baltzer, director of the adolescent medical and gynecological program at Montreal Children’s Hospital. She may have the best grasp in the country on what a 10-year-old Canadian girl will be like in 2015.
“Everything gets younger, no?” she muses. “To have sexual drive, you need the hormones of puberty. Maybe puberty is getting earlier, down from I2V2 to 12. It takes two years after the beginning of pubertal development for the hormones to be expressed. So if you start breast budding and pubic hair at 10 or IOV2, two years later you can be engaged in sexual behaviour. Before that, you can be sexy, but this is induced by adults, clothing and words. They are sexualized children.
“As physicians, if we see pubic hair today, we have a startled reaction. The 11-yearold’s mother brings her to the beauty salon to get her pubic hair shaved. It is as if we want to take away the natural signs of being an adult—it’s our fantasy of eternal youth, and we are starting early.
“These girls have no satisfying sexual life at all,” Baltzer says. “Recently, I asked a 13year-old girl, ‘Are you sexually active?’ She said, ‘No. I have sex, but I don’t move.’ ”
I mention to Baltzer that the children’s shops in Japan this autumn are full of backpacks and T-shirts and school supplies emblazoned with the Playboy bunny.
“How is the 12-year-old to defend herself when she thinks it’s just a cute bunny?” the physician gasps. “As a society, we have to open our eyes! What I hate is that the blame is put
on the children. I do not agree that they are mirrors of our society. It all depends on family background, the values you get from your parents. They are mirroring what they get from the adult world.”
Baltzer is 53, two years younger than I am, with a 12-year-old son and stepchildren aged 18 and 21. “We’re coming from Woodstock, from Free Love, from Flower Power,” she admits. “Did we do better?”
“Don’t blame me,” I reply. In 1969, when some of my buddies from my summer job at a post office in Manhattan went off to camp in the mud at Woodstock, I covered their shift in the sorting room and made a truckload of overtime.
Thirty-six years later, Baltzer thinks that the sexual revolution finally may have run its course. (If it hasn’t, and I am still alive when my daughter hits sweet 16, you’ll be looking at a one-man counter-revolution.)
“I think it is coming in waves,” she says. “I think it will go back. For example, the sex bracelets. Three years ago, all the girls were wearing them. Then they banned them. This is over already. This summer, they were replaced by the Lance Armstrong bracelets against cancer.
“The swing back to conservatism, we’re already in it. Things are very polarized. You are either anorexic or you are overweight. Every religion is swinging toward fundamentalism.
“And then on the other hand, I’m an optimist. Socrates said, ‘Youth has no respect—
what will be our future, with youth like this to build on?’ That was 400 years before Christ, and we’re still here.”
‘I hope technology remains in human hands, but there’s a further issue: which humans?’
-TED SARGENT, University of Toronto and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
WHAT ELSE ARE today’s Big Thinkers tinkering with, in my Lizzie’s first decade of life?
House paint that generates solar energy. Light-emitting micro-drugs that can illuminate a cancerous tumour when it still is much too tiny to be found by other means. Virtual meetings with distant colleagues that make you feel as if you are in the same room. Eyeglasses that can see in the dark. The Death of Distance.
In fact, one Canadian mastermind is working on all these things. Ted Sargent of the University of Toronto has a lot on his plate during a one-year stint at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Most of Sargent’s experiments involve nanotechnology, the manipulation of materials just a few atoms high, wide and deep. All of them invoke a vision of the future that respects both high-tech and humility.
“Technology is a powerful tool,” Sargent says, “and it grows more powerful every day. I hope it remains in human hands, but there’s a further issue: which humans?
“To make an impact, science has got to be for the better. It’s got to solve important problems at a human level. It has to fulfill people’s current unmet needs.”
“Look ahead 100 years,” I urge him.
“I think of the future in terms of what powers we will have,” he replies. “Pick an example—kidney transplants without taking a kidney out of somebody else. We won’t shake two test tubes together and create a new kidney. We will create the conditions where nature will make us exactly what we want.
“Nature takes an alphabet of just 100 atoms, and she arranges them so that people can be crazy, dogs can bark and vegetables can be celery. Our goal is to slip our intent into nature’s tool kit, and master matter from the molecule up.”
We’re talking about something called “virtual presence” that someday will relieve a magazine such as this of having to fly a reporter such as me to Japan. This “Death of
Distance” began in the 19th century with the telegraph and telephone and railway, but, as Sargent puts it, “It’s been a slow death.”
“Friends should no longer need to live in the same place,” Sargent writes in a new book, The Dance of Molecules: How Nanotechnology is Changing Our Lives. “Cycling buddies living in Boston and Toronto should pedal together with the feeling of closeness reproduced, integrated and instantly conveyed. Executives should no longer need to fly across continents to play squash and carry on affairs.”
“The wall in your conference room would look absolutely and seamlessly like the Tokyo office,” he tells me now. “Why not recreate the feeling of shaking hands as well? If you could signal to your brain in the right places all the physiological and perceptual components of a handshake, wouldn’t that be the same as actually being there and shaking hands?”
“In theory, then,” I propose, “I could visit my mother without actually going to see her, and even convince my brain that I was tasting her soup.”
“Yes,” Sargent replies.
“Wonderful!” I tell him. “But will she still
be able to do my laundry?”
On a more serious note, I ask Sargent if molecular synthesis is the only way to heal the wounds we have inflicted on our planet, and on each other.
“I wouldn’t say that only technology can save us from what technology has created,” he answers. “Will is the limiting step, and not technology. We do not constantly use all the technologies we already have, all the time.
“Our intent and our collective action can drive us to new and better technologies. But the fact that the scientist is human and connected to the physical world is absolutely crucial.”
TED SARGENT was hiking in the Rockies not long ago when he realized that the Death of Distance may not be to everyone’s taste.
“I’m inclined to say that the way in which we interact with the physical world—the feeling of my boots on the trail, the mountain air—is too satisfying to be discarded,” he admits.
I wonder how many other manifestations of scientific “progress” will turn out the same during our children’s lifetime; wondrous, revolutionary and chipping away at their humanity, atom by atom.
“What would you say to my baby daughter back in Canada?” I ask Andrzej Cichocki in Tokyo.
“I would tell her, ‘You are very lucky. You live in a beautiful country. A rich country. A free country.’ ”
We’re going to hear about many astonishing inventions as we approach 2105. “House arrest” ankle monitors for kids left alone at home. Satellite mapping transceivers embedded in hiking clothes. How
many of these inventions will make our country more beautiful, more rich and more free?
‘Executives should no longer need to fly across continents to play squash and carry on affairs’
-TED SARGENT, in his new book, The Dance of Molecules: How Nanotechnology is Changing Our Lives
“My son and your daughter are going to see great changes,” says Dr. Franklin Baltzer in Montreal. She worries about the rise of China, and the rise of “brainstyle” beings.
“The computers are going to take over,” I warn her. “Everybody tells me that is the way of the future.”
“I do not have such faith in machines,” she says. “It will be tried, but it will fail. The only machine I believe in is the human being. I may be a complete optimist, but I still do, I still do.”