The Engineered Future [Transcript]

The Engineered Future

The future of life

When considering the future of the evolutionary process, it is important to understand the fundamental aspects of future organisms.

One of the prominent features of them will be that they will be engineered. This means that they will be products of intelligent design.

Changes to evolution

Up to this point, evolution has proceeded mainly through the processes of mutation, recombination and selection.

Now that human beings have arrived on the scene, new possibilities have opened up for making new organisms.

In particular, design and engineering can now be employed.

The result of the introduction of these new tools will be a fundamental revolution in the evolutionary process.

No longer will mutations be largely an undirected process. Instead changes in organisms will be made deliberately, in the hope of better fitting them to their expected environment.

Similarly recombination will no longer be a process of finding a mate and mixing their genes with your own. Instead, the entire biosphere will be a potential reserve of useful genes which might potentially be employed. Nor need one creature be picked as a mate - instead genes from any number of creatures could be used.

Ultimately, selection will still remain - but the ways in which it acts may change somewhat.

As an example of such a change, one way selection will be applied in the future involves the possibility of fitness evaluation under simulation.

Instead of trying a modification in the real world, it can be tested in a simulated one. The advantages of this can be expected to include reduced cost, reduced time for evaluation - and the possibility of partial fitness evaluations.

Why will engineered creatures come to dominate?

We can expect to see engineered creatures in the future because they will rapidly become superior to organisms attempting to evolve by more conventional means.

Conventional evolution uses random mutation sexual reproduction and selection to improve its organisms.

Engineering approaches use random mutation and selection - but it can also use intelligent design, directed mutation, cross- species recombination, Lamarckian inheritance and selection under simulation to produce its future designs.

This is a superset of the tools which have been available to natural selection up to this point.

Since things like intelligent design and cross-species recombination are so plainly extremely useful design tools that the end results are practically bound to be superior.

Engineering design is a new player on the scene, and so far it isn't responsible for much of the planetary biomass. However, the progress that has been made so far is astonishing - it's as though the evolutionary process has suddenly invented rocket power - which is in fact literally true.

Given that we haven't yet mastered the key technologies of synthetic intelligence, and molecular nanotechnology the products of engineering design have made impressive roads into the existing biosphere.

Skyscrapers tower over the tallest trees. The hoover dam trumps beaver dams. Spaceships fly higher than any bird. The land speed record has been taken from the cheetah. Jets dive faster than a peregrine falcon. The internet puts the global network of whale-song to shame.

Even though the results are still incredibly technologically primitive, they are already displacing existing species from their niches - and are largely responsible for the current mass extinction.

Is an engineered future inevitable?

Not quite. There is some chance that our planet's life forms will be bombed back into the stone age, by phenomena such as repeated asteroid impacts.

If heavy asteroid impact prevents complex life reestablishing itself on this planet - and in the unlikely event that no other living organisms establish themselves elsewhere - then possibly the enginnered future could be avoided.

Judging by the frequency of asteroid impacts over the course of our history, this outcome seems rather unlikely.

It might appear that widespead use of nuclear weapons would also result in a similar effect.

I don't think this is true. Widespread use of nuclear weapons would merely result in a relatively minor delay.

Such setbacks would have to be repeated and continual in order to divert living organisms from their natural path.

More serious than asteroid impact would be an invasion by more advanced alien beings.

That might well have fatal consequences. However if such aliens are out there, the chances are overwhelming that they themselves will be engineered. The future will still consist of engineered organisms - they just might not be our descendants.

Routes to an engineered future

Here is a summary of the main routes to an engineered future:

  • Takeover by machines: human numbers may dwindle as powerful intelligent machines take centre stage;

  • Cyborgs: man could become engineered by developing a symbiotic relationship with his machines. The human element would then be down-regulated while the machine element comes to dominate.

  • Human germ-line genetic engineering: here, humans use engineering to modify themselves, and their symbionts. This is an unpopular approach with a substantial "yuck" factor.

The first seems most probable. There will be elements of the second, but human's probably won't "merge with machines" very much.

Those opposed to genetic engineering should realise that they are implicitly promoting the other alternatives in the list above - since they are about the only other realistic options.

The role of takeovers

Whenever I mention the engineered future, people tend to assume I am talking about genetic engineering of existing organisms. However, this under-estimates the role of takeovers in evolution.


  1. Hans Moravec "Mind Children", Harvard, 1988;
  2. Mark Ridley "Mendel's Demon - Gene Justice and the Complexity of Life" 2000;
  3. K. Eric Drexler "Engines of Creation" 1986;
  4. Gregory Stock "Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future" 2002;
  5. Lee Silver "Remaking Eden" 1997;
  6. Ralph Brave James Watson Wants to Build a Better Human.
  7. Evolutionary Manifesto - John Stewart

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