Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
When nanopush comes to genepull, what will be perfect?
Elizabeth Farrelly. Elizabeth Farrelly writes on architecture, planning and aesthetic issues for the Herald.
THE pen, as we know, is mightier than the sword, and the idea holds the pen. But what is the world’s most dangerous idea? That is this year’s annual question, as put to a range of thinkers by a science website called Edge. They sought ideas that are dangerous-if-true; but most dangerous ideas – Christianity, say, or democracy – are dangerous because they’re not true; not now, not ever. Of these, the most dangerous (and, arguably, underlying) idea is that of perfectibility.
Not that we want to be perfect. God no. To be perfect is to be without desire, and to be desireless is to be dead, or good as. It was St Augustine of Hippo who famously prayed, as a young 4th-century bloke, “grant me chastity and continence, but not yet”, lest the Almighty would “too soon cure me of my disease of lust which I desired to have satisfied rather than extinguished”.
And yet still the idea of perfection drives us; the fabulous house, the designer interior, the latest Beemer. Such appetites, you might argue, are less about being perfect than having perfect, but the distinction is increasingly technical. Desirable objects, after all, are desirable because we feel sure the aura rubs off.
This is the hedonic treadmill, so called because our satisfactions tend to be small and short-lived while our dissatisfactions are large and evergreen. Which is dangerous enough, ecologically speaking, since it sustains our bulimic cycle of wanting and getting. But galloping consumption is not the end of it. As culture becomes a tool not just to survive nature but to change it more profoundly than rose breeding, we teeter on a precipitous brink.
Perfection would be academic (in the sense of dull and futile) were it not, at this very moment, coming excruciatingly close to possibility. As this happens, and proximity intensifies desire, we are tantalised with if-onlys: if only I had a bigger house/breasts, faster car/neurons, a smarter street/child, smoother access/legs. If only. Lacks that were once a matter of nature become a matter of choice, of failure; absences that traditionally occasioned regret bring guilt and self-reprimand as well.
Intelligent design used to be for the gods, and many still wallow in that snakepit. But as gene splicing, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence come on stream, intelligent design becomes a design problem – our design problem. And the whole argument gets more interesting.
So far, our forays into intelligent or “smart” design have been banal, emphasising the design, not the intelligence. Take “intelligent” skyscrapers which, far from prolonging our species’ viability, are so highly strung that a wayward electron can turn the air-conditioning into a 40-storey people-cooker. Or smart houses. Sydney’s Len Wallis Audio won the 2005 Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association award with a house that has “over $500,000 worth of technology and … more than 20 different ‘zones”‘. Just what you need after a hard day: a house that beats you at chess.
Smarter still, an innovation enticingly called Brix uses virtual bricks and pixilated projection to offer “a new form of palimpsestual electronic architecture” that flips an image of your room guest onto the wall. Nothing that a mirror couldn’t do better, but it’s smart. As in dumb.
That’s to-date, in the smart department. You can see why we call ourselves Homo sapiens sapiens. Wise wise. Now, as gene technology frees this same species to redesign not just itself, but the world, it won’t stop with steak from watermelon vines. (Like, where do the vegans go?) As programmable babies, as predicted by Aldous Huxley in 1932 (and Alvin Toffler in 1970) become real, what then?
In a truly designer world, one that was all “pull” and no “push”, what kind of humans would we make? As we slide from excising the Huntington’s gene into ordering body shape and skin colour, our essential visual cues to each other lose all meaning. If we can order perfect children – physically, mentally – will these qualities still have value? Will we even know what “perfect” means?
And what of mind design? If happiness is attainable by altering perception, not context, what perceptual fields will we create? Will we take the opportunity to design not just ugliness and stupidity, but pain out of the human equation?
The Harvard psychologist Robert Epstein recently described his date with the “world’s most attractive android”, a silicone-skinned Eurasian robot called Repliee. Built by a computer scientist, Hiroshi Ishiguro, Repliee talks, blinks, smiles, moves her head, changes expression. Aided by sensors, she responds to sound and movement with subtle movements of her own. Notwithstanding her cold skin and limited conversation, Epstein reports finding her both beautiful and “compellingly human”. Mainly because she’s not perfect. Repliee’s face, modelled after a well-known Tokyo TV personality, is “utterly realistic down to the smallest blemish”.
This is important; the blemish is no accident. Like the deliberate flaw in the exquisite Afghan rug, it tells the gods we’re not after their job. To Epstein’s question, “when will we have the perfect android?” Ishiguro answers 30 years to sophistication, maybe 100 to marriage capability. But he doesn’t mean perfect perfect, he means perfectly not-perfect. Perfectly human.
A century hence, when the Global Species Designer selects which human genes to expunge, she might drop the god gene or the war gene (assuming they’re separate). If she’s truly wise, she’ll leave the Icarus gene that makes us crave perfection, but helps us see that every sword has two edges.
PHOTO: Seeking perfection … Cirque du Soleil’s take on the legend of Icarus.