The Health Care Singularity

A friend has the daunting task of talking about “creativity and the singularity” to a bunch of colleagues in a few weeks.  After nodding your head in sympathy about what a tough topic this will be, the first chance you get, you Google “singularity.”  Turns out it has more than one meaning, but generally refers to the ever-increasing pace of technological and information advance, resulting eventually in a “super-intelligence.”

It’s Moore’s law (doubling microchip information every eight-teen months) applied to technology in general, resulting in an exponential positive feedback loop.  As hardware and software become faster and smarter, they increase the pace of better hardware and software design and fabrication. So technology gets faster and smarter and more powerful at an ever-accelerating pace, until we eventually have real, artificial intelligence.

Meanwhile, individual humans (leaving out cultural evolution for now) don’t seem to be getting a whole lot smarter. Travel back in time 10,000 years and pluck a neolithic hunter-gatherer baby out of Mesopotamia, raise her in a typical twenty-first century North American family, and by the time she’s eight-teen she’ll have five hundred Facebook friends and be on her way to University of Oregon, or Harvard, or pulling coffee at Starbucks, depending on circumstances.

So eventually machines may overtake us in intelligence and utility. The optimistic scenario is that they end up doing a lot of our work for us (indeed they already do). The pessimistic scenario is that they become intelligent enough to object to doing a lot of our work for us, and we end up in some kind of techno dystopia, depicted in any number of science fiction narratives (2001: A Space Odyssey, iRobot, The Matrix, The Terminator).  Unless…

We join forces, advancing human evolution by design. This sounds crazy, creepy, over the line. Except that we’ve already crossed that line. We’ve  changed the course of human evolution with vaccines. We screen people for genetic disorders. And we’re  busy working on gene therapy for those disorders. We already implant machines – pacemakers, for example – in people.  What’s the next logical implant? Maybe it’s a miniature smartphone drilled into the skull (many techies already walk though life with a bluetooth headset clipped to their ear). And that’s just the beginning.

Without getting caught up in a bunch of sci-fi predictions, let’s ask a few basic questions, skipping the “do we really want to go there?” discussion, and assuming, for brevity’s sake, that we’re already headed there.

Who gets access to hyper-evolution, assuming it’s not free? Do we have alphas, betas and gammas as in Brave New World?  Or is it a trickle down kind of thing: eventually techno-intelligence filters down to lower economic rungs the same way cell-phones are becoming ubiquitous in parts of the developing world. Assuming a continuous techno-spiral, there would always be a techno-divide. Would certain techno-improvements be banned the same way steroids are in sports, with the same kind of commonplace rule-breaking?

Back to our friend’s conundrum, what does the ever increasing stream of information, and the possibility of enhanced evolution mean for creativity? Hyper-creative humans would likely produce art and literature and music and buildings and inventions stunning in their beauty and novelty. They might also produce negative things – like market manipulations and weapons and wars – that would also stun us. Because in the end, we’re only talking about intelligence, not wisdom.

But what’s this got to do with health care? Well, health care and managed human evolution may be converging toward this singularity, and we’re feeling it now, with new information and technology rushing at us faster than most of us can handle. If we’re not wise enough to answer these kinds of questions – who gets what, at what cost – how are we going to handle the world-changing issues coming at us as we ponder the course of human evolution.


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