David: How do you think consciousness evolved on this planet in the first place?
Ray: Well, again, the problem with that question is deciding what consciousness is. Let’s take the obvious behavioral phenomenologically perspective–that entities are conscious if they appear to be acting in a self-aware way. This is to say that consciousness follows from sufficiently intelligent behavior, the ability to behave in an intelligent way, which we associate with higher order animals, and particularly with human beings. Now, if that’s the assumption that we make about consciousness–and that’s the common wisdom assumption–then consciousness evolved with intelligence.
But again, I have to point out that there’s a big philosophical leap there. If we make that assumption then it evolved with intelligence, and intelligence evolved because of it’s survival benefits. Evolution moves towards higher order systems that are more capable of solving problems, and it has moved towards more intelligent organisms. It finally created a species that, not only was intelligent, but could manipulate the environment because of its opposable appendage, the thumb. So we’ve created technology, and the technology has become increasingly intelligent. Ultimately we’re going to use our technology to amplify our own intelligence.
David: What role do you see technology playing in the evolution of life on this planet?
Ray: As I’ve said, we’re going to reverse engineer our own intelligence, and understand in detail how it works. We’re going to recreate it then in our technology. We will, in the process of doing that, greatly amplify it and merge with it. We will basically recreate who we are–both our bodies and our brains–through nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and vastly expand human intelligence. And that’s inherently who human beings are. We are that species that seeks to extend our own horizons, not only physically, but intellectually. So we will merge with our technology and vastly expand our horizons.
David: What is your perspective on God, and do you see any teleology in evolution?
Ray: I see evolution as a spiritual process, because it moves towards greater and greater qualities that we associate with God. I mean, “God” is a word. What do people mean when they say the word “God”, or any of the synonyms that we have for it? If you look at all the different religious literature, the real common theme is that God is infinitely intelligent, all-knowing, infinitely beautiful, infinitely creative, and infinitely loving. I think that most people of different religious faiths would find some agreement with that kind of description. Very few people would be offended by that. If you say God is all-loving, all-knowing, and infinitely creative, generally religious people would find that to be satisfactory. Okay, now what do we see in evolution? We see that evolution creates entities that become–not infinitely creative or intelligent–but more creative and intelligent over time. Mammals are more intelligent than lizards, and we’re more intelligent than the other mammals. We’re more creative. We’re able to create technology. We’re more knowledgeable.
Evolution works exponentially. An exponential starts out very slow, but then it kind of explodes. And we’re actually getting to that point now in the 21st Century where technological evolution, which has taken over from biological evolution, is exploding. It will explode in the 21st Century, into vastly accelerating levels of intelligence, creativity, higher-order emotions such as love, and, in my view, beauty. Now, even an exploding exponential doesn’t become infinite, but it’s moving very rapidly in that direction. So, although evolution never achieves an infinite level–which is to say, it doesn’t absolutely become God–it’s moving in that direction of becoming more God-like. And it’s doing this at an explosive speed, as the exponential moves beyond what I call the “knee of the curve”. Biological evolution has really been eclipsed now by technological evolution, and technological evolution is going to explode as we get to the really powerful parts of the exponential growth of technology in this coming century.
David: Do you think that there’s any type of organizing intelligence inherent in Nature, or do you think that evolution is purely a random process?
Ray: I think Nature has the potential for what I’m talking about, but I believe the universe, right now, is basically what I call “dumb matter”. It’s operating by these primitive machine-like forces. But our technology is going to saturate the matter and energy in our vicinity of the universe with our human-derived intelligence, and then it’s going to spread out throughout the universe. Ultimately, the entire universe will be part of our exponentially spreading human-machine civilization, and, as a result, the universe will wake up. It will become sublimely intelligent.
If you read the various debates of the cosmologists, as to what the universe will do billions of years from now, you’ll see that they ask questions like, will it all go back to a Big Crunch, and then another Big Bang? Or will it expand forever, and all the stars will burn out? Never does it enter into any of their discussions as to the role of intelligence. Intelligence plays no role in any of those discussions. It’s as if intelligence is just a little bit of froth that has no bearing on these grand celestial machine-like, clock-like forces. But that’s not my view. In fact, if you do the calculations, it’s actually a very short period of time–measured in centuries–that our intelligence can spread (at the speed of light, and possibly even faster through wormholes) through the universe. Ultimately the entire universe will be suffused with our human-derived intelligence.
And intelligence can trump these natural forces. It doesn’t exactly repeal the forces of nature, but it can manipulate them with such powerful and subtle engineering that it can overcome them. If the universe, on its own, might expand forever, or contract, this now intelligent universe can decide to do something else. It’s going to be a conscious intelligent decision that we’re going to make as to the destiny of the universe, not this mindless grinding of these big forces like gravity and antigravity.
David: When I spoke with Noam Chomsky a few weeks ago he told me that he believed that military technologies were putting our species’ survival at serious risk, and that he thought there was a high probability that we might actually drive ourselves into extinction. How likely do you think it is that the human species is going to survive the next century?
Ray: There’s the potential to destroy ourselves. I mean, it could happen tomorrow, because we have enough nuclear weapons to destroy all mammalian life on the planet. Even though we’re no longer in the Cold War with the Russian Soviet Union, those weapons have not been destroyed. They still exist. So that kind of existential risk to the entire human civilization is something we’ve lived with now for close to half a century. But up until the middle of the 20th Century there wasn’t existential risks to the survival of our civilization. So we did introduce an existential risk, and there will be new ones with 21st Century technology. There are super weapons, that one can describe conceptually using nanotechnology, that are even more powerful than nuclear annihilation.
We’re really in the early stages now of the potential for biotechnology. I don’t mean just biological weapons like smallpox, but modified viruses that could spread easily, have a long incubation period so they couldn’t be detected, and could be very deadly. These could be engineered. And then nanotechnology and artificial intelligence could become a runaway phenomenon. Let’s say you have malevolent machines that actually go and design a new generation on their own. They create more powerful machines that then go and create even more powerful machines, that are not under control of responsible forces. I mean, there’s many different scenarios one can imagine that are destructive.
I’m more optimistic now than I was. I’ve actually been thinking about it for quite some time. I think if one really understands these technologies, there are three phases that one goes through with them. I know I did. The first phase is a tremendous awe at the power of these technologies to solve human problems–to overcome disease, extend human longevity, clean up the environment, and solve age-old problems that we’ve been struggling with for thousands of years. Then the next stage is to discover–oh no, wait a minute–these technologies, like nanotechnology, could have a profound down side of enormous destructive potential, and to become potentially overwhelmed with that specter. I think the third stage in this is to begin to understand that this dual nature of technology–the promise and peril–has been a dual nature of technology ever since there was technology, and that we do have means to overcome these problems, despite the very chaotic world we live in.
Let’s consider nuclear weapons. When they were exploded in the 1940’s, who would have predicted