Published June 19, 2012

Doug Casey on Facebook and Beyond, Part 2

(Interviewed by Louis James, Editor, International Speculator)

[Editor's Note: When we left our intrepid heroes hanging on an intellectual cliff, Doug Casey was saying:

Doug: The future is taking shape right on our screens. The question is where this will ultimately lead…]

L: Okay, realizing that I'm asking for a "forward-looking statement," where do you think it will lead?

Doug: Speciation, for starters.

L: The human race will evolve into something else?

Doug: Several something elses. It's already started. Homo sapiens appeared around 200,000 years ago. Migration to Asia is thought to have occurred about 50,000 years ago, ultimately leading to visibly different racial characteristics. The evolution of light skin appears to have happened about 12,000 years ago in Europe. It's politically correct to say that this divergence and the differences are cosmetic only and don't matter. And as far as I'm concerned, they don't in most cases, simply because I treat people as individuals. I judge them first and foremost on their character. Intellectual and physical abilities are secondary. But there are differences that are more than skin deep.

Look at dogs. Greyhounds are very fast, but dachshunds have short legs. Poodles are smart, but Irish setters are dumb as posts. Those differences have developed – depending on the breed – over only a few hundred years, or a few hundred dog generations. It's been accentuated and accelerated by human intervention, of course. Humans also have breeds; we call them races, and skin color is only one differentiating physical factor. There are probably scores of races. In Africa alone, the pygmies of the Ituri rainforest and the tall athletes of west Africa are as different as greyhounds and dachshunds. But you're not supposed to talk about these things in today's politically correct environment; it invites some fool to accuse you of racism. In any event, because of quantum leaps in travel technology, the various racial strains, having developed over hundreds of generations, are now reintegrating. My guess is that, just as humans started differentiating into breeds by living in isolated backwaters, they're heading in the opposite direction now. At least here on earth.

But suppose the first human colonies in space are put there by governments – not unreasonable, given the near-monopoly governments have on space access right now. The Chinese will set up a 100% Han colony, and the Indians will do similarly, as will the Europeans. A private company, likely based in the US, is much more likely to choose astronauts based on ability, as opposed to nationalistic considerations. In any event, while we remain in this solar system, there would likely be very little genetic exchange between the colonies, simply because of the time and money involved. That would result in isolation, like that of prehistoric times – or at least the European colonial period. And as soon as they start sending missions out to the stars, the seed stock would evolve in even greater isolation.

L: Assuming the speed of light really is the natural cosmic speed limit, that follows.

Doug: As someone with solipsist leanings, I'd like to think that anything that can be imagined can be done – at least, given enough time and capital. But for now, let's stick with what's known to be possible. With objects in space limited to traveling at some fraction of the speed of light, even the closest stars are many years apart. The closest is more than four light-years away. And we're likely to have to go farther than the nearest stars to find more earth-like planets.

L: Or planets that can be terraformed.

Doug: Yes. Once humans get established in space, evolution will take over – and take off. Before then, however, and likely even before we leave the planet, I'll bet there's going to be a lot of intentional, as opposed to natural, genetic alteration. It will start with efforts to eliminate undesirable genes that predispose one to heart disease, cancer, or genetic disorders. But while we're at it, why not also select for blue eyes, taller, more muscular frame, greater intelligence, and anything else people might want their children to have? Some people won't want to go that route, preferring to leave things to nature, but their children will be at a disadvantage to those whose parents have selected superior genes. That could lead to speciation along several lines.

L: It would be like an arms race. You might not want to pursue "unnatural" options, but if you don't, your posterity will be at the mercy of those who do.

Doug: Exactly. It would be a genetic Olympics – "citius, altius, fortius: swifter, higher, stronger." I despise limitations. And I don’t buy all the "only natural is good" nonsense circulating today – death is natural. But take it further. Who can be sure where it might lead in different places? People working in a low-gravity environment will need very different bodies from those on a planet with twice the gravity of earth. New subspecies with vastly different mental characteristics will come into being. For years, I've said – only half joking – that while it's quite possible for a libertarian to mate with a socialist physically, it's about as possible to mate with them psychologically as to do so with a chimpanzee. And what if people from one new subspecies couldn't breed with those of a different one? Let's just hope we can evolve ethically and morally at the same rate… although I expect that may be much harder.

L: Hm. We don't need to go out to space to look for aliens – we could be making them ourselves soon enough. Sounds pretty wild, Doug.

Doug: It does, but my read is that this isn't far-future stuff. The technology is right around the corner. Because of the "arms-race" psychology you pointed out, absent global war or some other cataclysm that leads to a new Dark Age, I don't see any way this can be – or should be – avoided. I take a laissez-faire view toward evolution, as toward just about everything.

L: What if there were a global ban on genetic manipulation?

Doug: Who would want to risk being left behind by the first people to break the rule in secret?

L: Not me. I guess it could be fun living in a world with real mermaids and mermen, and other interesting and different people, but I'm not sure I'd enjoy a world in which everyone was an order of magnitude smarter than I am – and I sure wouldn't want my children left at a disadvantage. Or maybe grandchildren, by then.

Doug: Right. But whether you would like it or not doesn't matter. I'm sure the Romans didn't like it when the Goths sacked Rome for the first time, but they didn't have a choice – nor the power to stop it. It's the same thing here; we're talking about technological trends that will have the force of history behind them. Much of the ongoing revolution in biology lends itself to low-cost research and entrepreneurialism of the type that gave birth to Apple. Undoubtedly, governments and political busybodies will try to stop or slow down progress, but they'll be unsuccessful. People may be able to influence how and when certain things happen, but I don't think they'll be able to stop what's coming. When there's a steamroller coming at you, it's best to jump on it, not lie down in front of it.

I've always been a fan of Timothy Leary's concept of "SMIILE": Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension. I'm sorry he was born a generation or two before he could have joined the party he predicted.

L: Well, an unstoppable trend appeals to me as a speculator – is there a way to play that?

Doug: Significant investments in the biotech companies most likely to lead the charge in this field would seem like the way to go. One thing in particular I think would be a sure ticket to big profits, if it comes along, would be to invest in a company that develops technology to change or augment existing, adult humans. As the human lifespan is getting longer, it won't be enough for most people to just give their children and grandchildren all the advantages possible. Like you, others won't want to live in a world in which all the younger people are smarter, faster, and stronger than they ever could be. But that's science fiction right now. It all starts with designer babies – and the technology is leading us in that direction.

L: Makes me think about what you said about "punctuated equilibrium." Despite of the advent of the 21st century, the world looks much as it has for decades. We still drive cars on roads instead of flying around like the Jetsons. Robots are still just complex, glorified screwdrivers, not the mechanical life forms we imagined. Maybe we need times of slower change to allow time for people to adapt to the changes thus far.

Be that as it may, if you're right about our species being on the brink of branching out, we might just be alive to witness one of the periods of sudden, drastic change.

Doug: Periods of great change are like markets with great volatility; many people are going to get wiped out, but those who can call the trends accurately stand to make fortunes. Nobody likes volatility; it's scary. But I'm afraid the world is going to be getting more, not less, volatile.

L: On the other hand, things could go down a different track – we've talked before about the "technology singularity." Do you think that could really happen? The pace of technological change accelerates to where it goes vertical, and life as we know it will be altered beyond recognition, possibly even beyond imagination?

Doug: I don't know. I can see technological punctuated equilibrium providing an alternative future scenario to the technology singularity, but I can also see technology improving to the point of improving itself, and that leading to an acceleration of change right off the charts. As you say, it's hard to even imagine what life would be like under such circumstances.

L: By "improving itself" you mean machines designing better machines – ultimately, artificial intelligence?

Doug: That's part of it, sure. If the rate of compounding in computing power – Moore's Law – stays on track, it seems likely that computers will eventually have more "intelligence" than people. And that's just while we're using silicon. Quantum computers might come into their own. And biocomputers. The coming genetic changes we talked about are another vector for greatly accelerated change.

L: As a matter of theory – or perhaps philosophy – do you think artificial intelligence is even possible?

Doug: I don't see why not. A human brain is just a fatty mass of electrical connections – why should an equally complex system of silicon or other electrical connections be unable to produce behavior we can call intelligent?

L: Why not, indeed… In your view, would an intelligent machine be a person?

Doug: Perhaps this development will allow us to get a definitive answer to whether the soul exists. That is actually, perhaps, the most important question of all. I'd be most interested in real proof, as opposed to conjecture. I'm absolutely open to the possibility, if only because I believe in mind over matter. But, possible spiritual implications aside, I could have as much fun talking to a smart machine as I do a smart collection of meat, bones, and brains. If the machine could pass the Turing test, in other words, I don't see how I'd be able to exclude it from personhood.

L: But you could mass produce millions of identical "persons" that way – isn't individuality part of what makes a person a person, not just intelligence?

Doug: I didn't say that any intelligent machine would be a person. I said that if I couldn't tell if a person I was interacting with has human or mechanical, I'd have to count him, her, or it as a person – and that would take some pretty unique interaction, perhaps even completely individual interaction. A difference that makes no difference is no difference.

L: I suppose, even if you produced a million identical robots with human-level intelligence, the moment you turned them on, each would start accumulating its own experiences, and each individual would become more and more unique as time went on.

Doug: Not so different from human babies, which start as single, undifferentiated cells. Even when born, babies are pretty much just fat pink tubes that eat, burp, eliminate, and make various noises to go with those functions.

L: They smile, too – when they aren't barfing on you or staining the new sofa brown…

Doug: I'm sure they do. The point, however, is that while there's individuality among them, that becomes much greater as time passes – even between identical twins.

L: Okay, okay, I get it. What about fears that a true AI might be hostile to its creators – or to all life forms other than itself? How do you control something that is an independent living being?

Doug: You don't. That would be slavery. But we don't ask these questions about humans before creating them – parents have children knowing they won't be able to control them, only influence them, as most. That doesn't stop them from having children, and it won't stop us from developing smarter and smarter machines – such machines will just be too useful not to be developed. Again, it's like an arms race. Progress leads to more progress, innovation sparks innovation. It's a pity that the concept of an arms race has such bad connotations.

Look, there's no reason for machine persons to be hostile to other life forms. Why should they be? Maybe some will grow that way, but others will not, and machine society could evolve like human society, with a mixture of different views. Could that mixture evolve towards a consensus that's hostile to humans? Maybe, but I'm willing to bet that there will always be things humans are better at than machines and vice versa, so what really emerges is a symbiotic relationship. That's one reason I love science fiction and sci-fi movies. They explore the nature of existence more than any other category of storytelling can.

L: I can see what you mean, but I guess there's no way to know – and if you're right, there really isn't a way to stop this from happening, not without pulling the plug on our whole civilization.

Doug: We may well get to see the answers. Maybe not tomorrow, nor next year, but I'd be surprised if we didn't see real artificial intelligence within one generation.

L: Wow – so how do you invest?

Doug: I'm definitely interested in companies working on AI applications now, but the first AIs may well come from university labs. Watching for commercial applications around that time would seem crucial. Where is the next Apple, or Intel, or Microsoft that's still in its embryonic stages? We're looking, but there are no sure things.

AI may be some way down the road, but innovators in the computer industry can and will make better mousetraps of every sort, and that will yield high returns for investors. Related to this, there's a loot of cutting-edge technology being deployed in the gaming industry, and I think there's a lot of money to be made there as well.

And as we discussed before, one of the best places to speculate in our changing technological world is in the biotech/medical sphere. I think there are fortunes to be made there, not just on new treatments and cures, but on life-extension technologies.

But it's best to refer readers to Alex Daley and our technology letter for more on that. The main point now is that the future is unstoppable. That's in the nature of time itself. You can either look forward and try to prepare or get left behind.

I keep telling people who call me a bear that I'm an optimist. You questioned my optimism earlier in this conversation. Well, unless we do blow ourselves back into the Stone Age or worse, I do think that even though the global economy is about to go through the wringer – and it's going to be even worse than I think it's going to be – the future beyond that is going to be even better than I think it will be. No cancer, no AIDS – no aging. No being stuck on one planet. It is literally going to be even better than we imagine. Or perhaps better than we can imagine.

L: Bravo. Well, I kept asking for a more upbeat topic; I'm glad we got one.

Doug: My pleasure. But I'm not trying to humor you; I'm still just calling 'em like I see 'em.

L: Noted and appreciated. 'Til next time.

Doug: Until next time.

It may seem hard to believe that we'll one day be able to produce a race of superhumans, but it wasn't so long ago that splitting the atom, space travel, and the quantum leaps in communications we all take for granted – the Internet and smartphones – were little more than pipe dreams.

And while a race of genetically perfect people may not be imminent, the same cannot be said of life-saving breakthroughs in disease prevention and treatment. Nowhere is this more evident than in the treatment of cancer, where several little-known biotech firms have developed treatments for this dreaded disease that sound like something out of a science-fiction novel.

But they're real enough to the FDA, which has approved a number of these therapies and is considering approving many more. Alex Daley, the chief technology investment strategist at Casey Research, and his team have put together a report on some of these revolutionary treatments in great detail.