I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Homo Novus

We are entering a new phase of human evolution. The next couple of decades will mark the end of humanity as we know it today.

The genus Homo has been around for a couple of million years. Some 130 000 years ago the species Homo Sapiens developed in Africa and begun spreading to the rest of the world. They were the direct ancestors of all human beings living on earth today. The differences that we see today between the various ethnic groups are the result of living under very different environmental conditions in the ensuing millennia. They account for some 40 genes out of a total of 40 000. The resulting rate of genetic change is one gene every 20 to 30 thousand years.

For example, only few adults had the gene necessary for digesting milk derivatives when humans learnt how to domesticate and breed animals. The advantage of being able to utilise such a rich source of proteins and nutrients set in motion a darwinian selection in favour of that gene. But the natural evolution is so slow that today, 10 000 years later, more than half of the world population is still unable to digest lactose.

While our anatomy and genetic makeup require millennia to show any change, the same does not apply to our way of life. Spurned by a flood of scientific and technological innovations, our society and culture have changed at an increasing speed over our recorded history. The construction of the great pyramids in Egypt occurred 200 generations ago. The Roman Empire lasted 60 generations and fell a little more than 50 generations ago. Somewhat less than 23 generations ago Gutenberg built his first printing press. Thomas Savery patented the first steam engine some 12 generations ago.

The list is endless, but up to the last four generations, at the end of the 19th century, changes occurred at a pace we could keep up with. Till then, the conflicts between generations, which have probably always existed, were part of the natural growing process of the individual. This is no longer true. Electric street lighting, radio, motorcars, and airplanes appeared in the decade spanning across the 19th and 20th centuries. The whole 20th century was a roller-coaster ride towards the future. Society changed so quickly that the generational gap became a real fracture.

Today, change has become an integral part of our society, and the rate of change itself keeps increasing. We are accelerating towards our future, not just getting there at constant speed and at a sedate pace.

It makes sense. As any new technology generates a palette of new possibilities, its introduction results in a cascading effect comparable to that of compound interest. Innovation feeds on itself in an explosive way, further accelerated by the increasing efficiency and decreasing cost of information distribution.

Many people in the developed countries have access to technological marvels their parents wouldn’t have even dreamed of. But all those new technologies are modifying our society at a deep level. Ultimately, they will change the way in which we see ourselves. One thing is clear: computers have entered our everyday life to stay.

These changes are still subtle. Some of us still believe they could switch all the gadgets off and retire to a life close to nature. But this is an illusion. In reality, computers already dictate most aspects of our existence. For most people they have become modern tyrants, or oracles, which provide unquestionable answers. So many times we hear that something is not possible because a computer program doesn't allow it. Soon a computer generated image with synthesised voice and automatic speech recognition will replace the last human operators. It is technically possible today and it will become an everyday’s fact of life as the cost of computing keeps decreasing. No more arguing with operators then...

Eventually, unless we do something about it, the machines will become the real masters of our lives. To avoid succumbing to them, we will have to learn how to transcend our current biological limits. We will need to evolve into a new species, the Homo Novus(1) which gives the title to this post. This will be possible thanks to the technologies that some of our leading scientists are developing right now.

The first of these new technologies is the merging of our bodies with artificial parts and in particulars with computers. It will affect our very nature as human beings. We understand always better how information is transmitted and stored in our brains. We are already able to build simple interfaces to control computers with our thoughts. We can also implant chips capable of preventing epileptic crises or reducing the most debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease. It is only a matter of time before these technologies will become available to the general public and for all sorts of applications.

The second new technology is genetic engineering applied to the human genome. Many governments are grappling with the problem of preventing scientists from cloning and altering human genes or splicing genes from other species into human embryonic cells. They will lose that battle, because it is not possible to control what happens in all laboratories. It is not even possible to know where all the laboratories are. Moreover, as it happened with fiscal paradises and off-shore abortion clinics, many countries will open their doors to genetic research banned elsewhere. And there have always been plenty of scientists willing to explore the boundaries of what is possible.

And then, there is nanotechnology. That is, the extreme miniaturisation of mechanical devices to the point that they can even operate at the molecular level.

The combined effects of these technologies will change humanity. Perhaps it will not be a utopian society without differences or hunger, but it will still be a world full of new opportunities and wonders.

(1) Novus is the Latin word for New.


  1. the true homo novus will be able to do all of that without the technology

  2. Without genetic engineering, any evolution would take a very long time. With cyborg technology, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology, dramatic changes to what it means to be human are around the corner.

  3. subtle changes. I believe that I am further on the chain of evolution that most, and I experience subtle differences between myself and others. For example I am in shape although I don't eat very healthily, although I enjoy healthy foods.

    1. You might well be ahead of others. That is, in the "good" tail of one or more distributions that represent the human condition. If so, for the sake of human generations, please have many children! The ethical thing to do would be donate to sperm banks! :-)