Whose Future Is It, Anyway?

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Contradictory forecasts are starting to give me a headache. Some experts say we have an innovation deficit. Unless, that is, technology is producing a cognitive surplus of Web-enabled creativity. Now in the Sunday New York Times, the lead article acknowledges:

[T]he primary goal of the $3 billion Human Genome Project -- to ferret out the genetic roots of common diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's and then generate treatments -- remains largely elusive. Indeed, after 10 years of effort, geneticists are almost back to square one in knowing where to look for the roots of common disease.

But the same issue's featured Sunday Business story profiles the Singularity Movement and quotes one of its leaders:

"We will transcend all of the limitations of our biology," says Raymond Kurzweil, the inventor and businessman who is the Singularity's most ubiquitous spokesman and boasts that he intends to live for hundreds of years and resurrect the dead, including his own father. "That is what it means to be human -- to extend who we are."

Kurzweil's position and that of arch-skeptics like David Edgerton might yet be compatible. Progress may be an elastic fluid like the ketchup in Richard Armour's famous verse.

So it's not so surprising that Eric Schmidt, President and CEO of Google, is both a Singularity University sponsor and an advocate of the Innovation Deficit idea. Aristotle himself exempted statements about the future from his axiom that contradictory propositions could not both be true. (Scholarly discussion here.) And F. Scott Fitzgerald may have had the final word on the matter when he wrote: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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